|Travelogue: Australia 2000||
Tuesday February 8, 2000
Leaving Seattle bound for LA to pick up my flight to Sydney, Australia. This is going to be a long 25 hours of travel. Fortunately using upgrades I am going to be First Class all the way to Sydney. That will definitely help. Nancy, the attendant at Premier check-in in Seattle was exceedingly nice and helpful... an excellent harbinger for the trip to come. I'm not sure what it is about Seattle, but the people here are usually extremely nice to me. Perhaps it is the home court advantage.
Anyway, I am in the ever popular bulkhead seat 1A on this Airbus 320, the same seat I was in for my trip from LA to Seattle last week. It's a great seat, though it appears to have slightly less legroom than the other first class seats, and there's nowhere to put my backpack. I still like this seat.
Taking off at sunset, the clouds are spectacularly lit in reds and pinks and purples. Some kind of coronal effect is making the shadow of the plane on the clouds surrounded by a 360 degree rainbow. The different layers of clouds slide by below us at different speeds. The whole scene is just exquisite. I don't recall having such a beautiful in-flight show before.
The service on this flight is among the best I have had. Really nice and attentive. The food was good, but not great; a good filet mignon with a very nice cabernet sauvignon.
The United International First Class lounge here in LAX is very nice. The food spread is good. My favorite thing is the view. The huge picture window looks out on what I call the "mystery structure". I have no idea what this thing is, but I am told that it houses a restaurant. All night different colored lights illuminate it in ever changing colors of the rainbow. Very nice.
Seat 1F in First Class on this 747-400 is a little bit odd. First Class is ( understandably) right up in the nose of the plane, and gets progressively narrower as you go up. Row one is good in that it is the bulkhead so no one will recline their seat into you. However, for some reason they provide absolutely nowhere to put anything. You can hardly store a paperback book. I've pulled out all of the magazines from the tiny magazine holder and put my book in there. Every other seat has a huge pocket on the back of the seat in front of it. I don't understand why they didn't mount a giant pocket onto the bulkhead; there's plenty of room for one. In addition, the seats further back have a more spacious feeling to them, since the plane is wider back there, though I don't think they actually have any more room than the bulkhead seats. These seats are pretty amazing with a huge variety of adjustments, but they haven't installed the new private suite seats that fold down into a bed yet. Hi ho. So far those are only in the 777 and one or two 747's have been upgraded as well. Anyway, I have no intention of complaining about First Class.
I've never experienced such continuous turbulence. Every cup of coffee, wine, and water wants to empty itself onto my plates. I'm not sure how I'm going to manage to sleep. This has been going on for the first 2 hours of flight; will it ever stop? Nope. Virtually nonstop for 14 hours we've had turbulence. Sometimes strong, sometimes mild, but always there. Some people have said that they prefer these old style first class seats, but I think I have to give the nod to the new fully-reclining seats. The thing that really makes the new first class seats shine is that you can sleep in any position, front, side, back whatever. These old style seats, while very good, only provide for comfortable sleeping on your back.
Wednesday February 9, 2000
Due to flying time and crossing the date line, this day basically doesn't exist.
Thursday February 10, 2000
Coming in for a landing it suddenly became smooth for the first time in hours and hours. It is now so smooth and quiet that I actually had a mild panic attack that the engines had stopped. I wonder why this flight was so damned choppy. Out the window there is an amazing view of Sydney. I can clearly see the opera house and the Sydney harbor bridge.
One thing about flying first class on a 747 is that right before landing it is absolutely terrifying. As you are coming in, the captain puts down the landing gear. But being way up in the nose, the noise is amazing! It sounds like the front of the plane has been ripped off, or a door was opened accidentally. Fortunately my friend Richard had forewarned me about this, but still it is unnerving. Thankfully the landing was completely uneventful.
On the way to passport control I stopped to speak with a United representative about Arrivals by United and long term luggage checks. She was extremely helpful, but in the end this turned out to be a mistake. In the 2 minutes we were talking a whole 747's worth of passengers got into line for immigration in front of me. Being First Class I should have been one of the first in line. Being last, it took about 20 minutes to get through. As it turns out I can use Arrivals by United, but what they do here is to send you by shuttle to a local Sheraton. Doesn't sound worth it since I can use the Ansett GoldWings lounge, so I declined. After clearing immigration and customs, my International Concierge, Lorraine, helped me find the long-term luggage storage.
Because I am going on to Europe from here, I have packed a bag full of cold weather clothes that I wont need while I am in Australia. It turns out that I can leave my bag in a locker for as long as I want for AU$4 per day. That means that it will cost about US$75 to leave my bag for the month. The oversized luggage storage is also an option, but it is AU$8 per day. Oh well, it's worth it to not have to lug this extra bag all over the place. Leaving a bag does decrease my options though, since this means that I absolutely, positively have to leave via Sydney. That is the plan, but I am always reluctant to limit my options.
The long-term stowage is at one end of the airport, and the Ansett transfer gate is at the other. It's quite an obstacle course weaving my laden luggage cart through throngs of people, but I get the whole business done with in about 15 minutes, including pondering time. Checkin at Ansett is a breeze in the Star Alliance Gold line, but then there is a wait to get onto the Ansett shuttle to take me from the international airport to the domestic airport. I hate cities with separate airports for domestic and international. What a pain. Anyway, all told it takes from my 8:05 touch down till about 9:15 to clear immigration, get my bags, leave my one bag, check through, and get to the domestic Ansett Gold Wings lounge. Not that it matters, my flight to Coffs Harbor doesn't leave until 12:05.
The Gold Wings lounge is nice, big and airy, though not my favorite color scheme. As I am arriving there is the wonderful smell of bread toasting, and I go by a big spread of breakfast goodies on my way to the showers. The showers provided are good, though a far cry from the 5 star "Arrivals by United". Still, I shower and shave and feel a lot more human. I'm so glad I' ve discovered this feature; it makes me feel so much better on a long multi- leg flight. I'm not sure what time they switch over, but when I got out of the shower all the yummy breakfast stuff was gone. All that was left was some fruit, crackers and cheese. Damn! I was really looking forward to some nice toast. Oh well. Gotta strike while the iron's hot.
I tried to dial up the internet from the lounge here, but my computer gave me an ominous message that my modem detected unacceptable voltage and that the computer was not allowing the modem to go off-hook to protect it. Yikes! Good computer... good computer... After I plugged the phone back in, it wouldn't work any more. I suspect that this is a digital phone system. Hi ho. But, I spoke too soon. In the business center they have nice cubicles with analog phone lines. Yee ha. Apparently this lounge is temporary until they finish building their new lounge.
The Ansett wing of Sydney's domestic airport is very nice and modern with moving walkways, airy open spaces and comfortable seating. It is a very informal process boarding the Saab 340 for the flight to Coffs Harbor. I had thought that this flight was going to be a Fokker jet, but it turns out to be a prop plane. I am in seat 4A, a single seat in this 2 and 1 configured plane. It is also a bulkhead seat, which would normally be good. However, this is clearly the worst seat on the plane; there is no window and the bulkhead is so close that my knees touch it. Because the plane is so small, the roof is very close. I feel like I am sitting in a tiny box. Fortunately, the exit row 3B & C is open, and the attendant lets me move to there. By contrast, 3B & 3C are the best seats on the plane. The bulkhead is quite far away giving plenty of legroom, and the seat does have a window. [Note that seat 3A does not exist because of the door of the plane.] I find it ironic to move from the worst seat to the best seat. It is amazing that food is served on this tiny prop plane on a 55 minute flight. It's just a small sandwich, but is very good. Another surprise is how smooth this little plane flies; it seems smoother than the 747 from Los Angeles. Better still, the views out the window are excellent, looking down on the Australian coastline with its amazingly clear waters. But I don't watch for long, as I am crushingly tired. After eating my little meal I recline back into the sheepskin covered seat for a power nap.
My old friend Jaybe has recently emigrated from the US to Australia and now lives here in Coffs Harbour. He is there to meet me at the airport and takes me to the Novotel Opal Cove hotel, which is just a 2-minute walk from his home. It is actually a resort hotel that is a fair drive out of town, but it works out well for us because of the proximity to his place. Because this is off-season, we assumed that I would have no trouble getting a nice ocean view room without a reservation. However, it turns out that there are no ocean view rooms available due to the Valentines Day weekend. Hi ho. The color scheme and design of this place is pure resort - lots of rattan and festive colors. The music played in the lobby and hallways is muzak, or what I call " music to vomit by."
I had dinner with Jaybe, his wife Shelly, and their kids tonight at a restaurant called "390 on High", surprisingly located at 390 High St. I had a fabulous Zietsch Bros ginger beer to accompany a very good chicken stuffed with Brie on a risotto cake. After dinner we stopped at Passionfish Brasserie (384a High St, 02-6652-1423) where I had eaten excellent Moreton Bay Bugs last time I was here. We wanted to make a reservation for Sunday night, but sadly, they are only open Tuesday to Saturday. Damn. Looks like I wont be able to repeat that meal on this trip.
The hotel does not have alliances with any frequent flyer programs that I belong to (and I belong to a lot of them!) They do have a relationship with Thai Royal Orchid, though, so I go up to my room, get online, and join Thai Royal Orchid on the Thai Airways web site. Why not?
Unfortunately neither of the ISPs I'm signed up with has a local number for Coffs Harbour, so I have to pay AU 85 cents per minute to make the long distance call to the nearest internet dialup. Oh well.
Friday February 11, 2000
My room is pleasant, even if it doesn't have a super view. It is reasonably sized with a good bed and a great shower. The television doesn't get any interesting channels, but I can live without CNN for a few days. The included breakfast was awful. I had an under-toasted scone, half a stale poppy seed muffin, and three slices of greasy bacon. I skipped the nasty looking steam table eggs, desiccated pancakes, and other delicacies that only a British ex- convict could love.
Sitting at breakfast I am reading the Coffs Harbour visitors brochures, which are hysterical in a sad kind of way. They are full of glowing stories of irrelevant places like the "Pub with no beer". It all sounds like a yuppie woman's clothing catalog glorifying a control-top girdle.
After breakfast I took a taxi into town. Just to make conversation I commented that Coffs Harbour was a nice looking town. Boy did the driver go off! For the rest of the drive he proceeded to rant about dirty hippies on the dole, unwed mothers, druggies, bums and thieves. Over and over he rhetorically asked why the hell he was sitting here working his ass off while the god damned government is paying these dirty drug addicts to do nothing so that they can break into his house while he's off earning a living. He should have his head examined. Hmmmm. Maybe he should!
Unsatisfied by the lame breakfast at the Novotel, I had breakfast #2 at Foreshore on High St. Two eggs fried hard (not the "over easy" I ordered) and toast. Oh well, the coffee was good.
Just down the street from the Foreshore, I arranged to go diving tomorrow with Gary at Jetty Dive Center, 398 High St. ((02) 6651 1611). Then I walked out to the end of the jetty to Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve. It was now high noon in brilliant sunshine. I walked the path the entire length of Muttonbird Island and saw hundreds of muttonbird burrows, but only a few muttonbirds soaring far out to sea. I imagine the muttonbirds have the good sense to either be out fishing or hiding in their burrows at the height of mid -day in the summer. The wind was very strong and blew my hat off at one point. Though the sun was hot, it didn't feel too bad due to the winds; I was a bit worried because those are the perfect conditions for a major sunburn. But the views were very nice and it was good to get some exercise. In all I walked for about an hour, from noon to 1pm, the very worst time for sunburn. Oh well, mad dogs, Englishmen, and Andrew go out in the noon day sun. When I got back I had some excellent fish and chips at Jetty Village Take-Away for AU$5.50. I also had a Zietsch Bros "Portello Smooth" soda. I couldn't tell you what flavor of fruit it was supposed to be. It tasted quite artificial, very unlike last night's ginger beer.
While walking through town looking for a taxi stand to go back to the hotel, I walked by the local middle school where there were kids learning to bowl cricket. I took some photos and soon there were large crowds of school kids on the playing field asking me to take their photos! They gathered into groups of 5 to 7 kids and mugged for the camera. It was great. They all wanted to know if they were going to be in the newspaper. When I said it was for the Internet, ten times more kids wanted me to take photos. One kid actually mooned me. Go figure.
I was feeling a bit run down, so I went back to the hotel for a nap. After my a brief rest I went down to the bar and had a Coopers beer and a plate of " Dim Sims", which were basically deep-fried Japanese shumai. They were pretty good and the Coopers knocked me off my ass. I was ready for another nap. The wind was amazing. Sitting out on the bar's deck it almost knocked my beer over, making it very difficult to read. I wonder what the conditions will be for my dive tomorrow.
I walked down to the beach for an evening stroll and look around. The beach at this resort is very coarse sand, with the waves breaking right on the beach. Apparently it is very dangerous to swim here. I can imagine it. The water temperature was great though so I had fun running in the edge of the water. At one edge of the beach are rock formations of what appear to be volcanic rock that has been eaten away by ages of small stones grinding them down powered by the waves. The stones grind bigger and bigger bowls in the rock, creating a perfect network of tide pools. I had a great time clambering over the rocks and looking in the tide pools at the anemones, snails, chitons, and crabs.
What is it about genuine experiences? Last week I was at SeaWorld in San Diego where they had a huge synthetic tide pool full of a multitude of creatures. They were all labeled, you could pick them up and examine them, and there was even a person there to answer any questions that you might have. Yet it was all fake. I had so much more fun here climbing on the rocks to peer into little tide pools with one or two non-descript anemones. Perhaps if I had to climb to get to the tide pool exhibit at SeaWorld. Maybe Shamu could have splashed me with his tail while I was at it.
For some reason, all the while I was singing to myself a snippet of a song by Poi Dog Pondering:
But you know damn well he'll eat him if he can
The lion doesn't want to be pacified
With promises of an endless life
'Cause he knows it's not that way
He's not detached, he sees it every day
He sees the birth, the death, and the decay
The birth, the death, and the decay
And he accepts it, he says its OK
He wouldn't eat us for our elitist way-ay-ay-ays
Walking back up to the hotel I went through a field where there were birds feeding. It was wonderful. I walked into the field, which didn't seem to bother them much, though they did keep a 10 foot distance from me at all times. There were three Galah parrots with gray backs and amazing pink fronts and necks. They were walking around eating the flowers off the dandelion-like weeds. There was also a small flock of crested pigeons, a pigeon species that looks like a quail, and several of those amazing black and white "black backed magpies", which look something like monochrome jays. After a while I just sat down in the field and watched them. The trees too were full of chirping birds. Ahh, evening in Australia. Further along I found a tree of some kind with a huge spike of red flowers at the top, covered with stunning green lorikeets. Wonderful.
Afterwards I made myself a cup of freeze dried coffee in the room and watched a mad procession of exotic birds fly by while waiting for Jaybe and Shelly to come get me. Tonight we will go to one of their favorite local restaurants with a group of friends from Sydney.
We had a large, fun group this evening for dinner at The Blue Fig in Sawtell. Initially we were served excellent caraway seed rolls. I chose to have two appetizers instead of a main. The "bugs tails with apple, thyme and tomato confit with watercress salad" was done with a very attractive presentation, though to call two sprigs of watercress a salad is a bit delusional. [Aside: " bugs" are a crustacean whose meat is reminiscent of lobster and shrimp.] The dish was served barely warm, and though it was good, I think it would have been great served hot. I think they tried to get everything for our party of 8 out at once, but failed. My second appetizer was "Confit of duck on aromatic vegetables with tortolini of the leg and a cinnamon and lemon sauce." Quite a mouthful to say, though a very small dish. The sauce was beautiful, the tortolini was actually a ravioli, and the whole dish was served room- temperature again. It would have been really great hot. For desert, " Chocolate Marquis", a sour-cream dark chocolate slab of heavy mouse with a cup of very good coffee. My meal came to about AU$50.
At dinner, Rob, one of Jaybe's friends from Sydney, cured my internet connection woes by giving me a disk for an Australian free ISP with a nation- wide phone number called GlobalFreeway. Highly recommended.
Saturday February 12, 2000
It was up and at 'em early this morning for my dive with Jetty Dive Center. Big waves made getting out to the dive site in a small boat into an athletic workout. The dive today is at Split Solitary Island, just off the Coffs Harbour coast. Three people on the trip were researchers for the Australia Museum in Sydney. Then there was one other diver and I. Unfortunately, visibility was terrible, there was a lot of surge, and very little to see. The only interesting things were a few beautiful cowries and one shark with fascinating coloration called a "wobbie." The water was 19 degrees centigrade (66.2 degrees Fahrenheit). My wet suit is a 3mil Henderson Goldcore, which should be good down to the mid to lower 70s. As you can imagine, I froze my ass off. Even though I had tons of air left, we came up after only 1/2 hour because the other diver was having ear problems. I was so cold that I was happy to come up early. Normally the water should have been clear and much much warmer here (I am told.) I was also perfectly happy to have the scheduled second dive cancelled.
After the dive I was fairly starving, so I went up the street for another breakfast at Foreshore. This time I had the eggs benedict, which were OK. I got a hold of Jaybe on the phone, and he came out and picked me up. Still hungry I managed to go right on to lunch at a place called Jamaica Blue in a local mall. The chicken stroganoff pie was good, and very "British colony". We hooked up with the Sydney contingency and headed out to the beach for some boogie-boarding. Unfortunately it was now raining, and I was still feeling quite chilled from my dive, so I just sat on the beach under a towel while I watched the others board.
Coffs Harbour has a downtown pedestrian mall that is very similar to that found in many Australian coastal towns. However, this one is in its death throws due to crime problems. Apparently there have been a number of muggings that have put several tourists in the hospital. As a result, the businesses along the mall are dying here, though they thrive in most cities. The mayor has put forward a plan to pave the center of the mall and turn it back into a thoroughfare. I don't understand why they don't just post police. Most Australian cities' pedestrian malls have a nice big police stand smack dab in the middle. Hmmm.
One such business that is being impacted by the crime problem is Jian's Sushi and Noodle Soup Bar. Clearly Jian's would like to serve dinner, but the mall is just dead at night, so they are open for lunch only. However, tonight they were staying open to do their yearly Chinese New Years banquet. It was a huge multi-course meal: First wonton dumpling soup, which was very nice with a lovely chicken broth where flavors of sesame oil play with cilantro and chives. The next course was beautiful potstickers filled with fish. As part of the New Years thing, some of the potstickers had coins hidden in them. Find a coin, get a prize. Personally I think it was more like "find a coin, get dental work." On my first pick I got the "big" coin, which meant I got the big prize. The next course was an excellent plate of cold rice noodles with cilantro and cabbage, flavored with Chinese mustard. Next, more fish dumplings, then a plate of fried tofu with Chinese broccoli in a great flavored oil. Another plate of fried potstickers followed, then a dish of tofu with rice noodles and cabbage. Very few of us had room left for the plate of spinach with garlic in a thin sauce, and we were all a bit disappointed when the next course was yet another kind of potstickers. The final course for the evening was a rather surprising dish of sliced brisket on a bed of mung bean sprouts and seaweed. Desert was balls of rice flower pastry filled with ground roasted sesame. Given that 5 of the dishes were different kind of dumplings, you could almost hear the groan at the table when desert was yet another dumpling. All in all, the dinner was excellent and fun, but I don't think any of us will eat a potsticker for a while.
It had occurred to me to go out and see Coffs Harbour night life on this Saturday night, but given my 6am start this morning, the exhausting effects of cold water diving, and jet lag, I was literally asleep at the table by the time desert arrived. One of the people at dinner took a photo of me sleeping.
Sunday February 13, 2000
This morning it is raining for real. Jaybe, Shelly, Rob and their respective families picked me up at the hotel and we all went back to the Foreshore for breakfast. I had a very disappointing French toast, which was basically grilled bread. When I mentioned to the waitress that French toast is traditionally dipped in eggs before being grilled, she offered me to get a new batch. The next batch was definitely dipped in eggs, but barely cooked. Hi ho. The grilled bananas that came on top were great.
Everyone was heading out to the suburbs to the home of one of Shelly's friends for an afternoon of family-oriented fun. I elected to go back to the hotel. The wind picked up like the other day, but this time with the rain it was now hellish out. The plan is for Jaybe and I to drive north tomorrow, but with this weather I suspect we'll bag that idea. Shelly and Jaybe had me over to their place for dinner tonight where we talked about possible alternative plans for the next several days, then packed it in.
Monday February 14, 2000
The weather is quite cool today and still very windy. It's overcast, but there are some sun breaks and it isn't actively raining. The reports are calling for clearing throughout the day here, but it is still expected to be ugly from here north. The news on TV last night showed people stranded in Alice Springs, a desert city in the "red center" of Australia, due to flooding. Streambeds which should be dry in Alice Springs are overflowing their banks and two busses are stranded on the highway, unable to go forward or back due to flooding.
My thinking had been to go north from Coffs Harbour, stopping at various places along the way, and ending at Cairns where I would go scuba diving. Then, I was going to head south to Melbourne, time permitting. At this point I think I will go south first to Melbourne or Tasmania, then head north when and if the weather clears. So, Jaybe and I went into town to make arrangements at a travel agency to go to Tasmania. Unfortunately, all the flights were full for today, so we have to wait till tomorrow.
Afterwards we went and had a lunch of "laksa" (spicy Malasian noodle soup) at Jain's, then went back to Jaybe and Shelly's to just relax, write, and watch the rain.
In the evening the weather cleared a bit so we went out for a walk, down a little nature path behind the house, past a pretty little pond, out to the beach, up a rocky hill, down a trail, and back to the house. On the beach we watched two beautiful brown and white Australia Sea Eagles, then headed back, arriving just as the rain started up again.
Tuesday February 15, 2000
Up at 5am this morning to make the 6:45am flight from Coffs Harbour to Sydney. Today is quite a milk run: Coffs Harbour to Sydney to Melbourne to Hobart. Yikes. It is another cool, overcast, drizzling morning here in Coffs. A good day to be flying towards the sun.
The first flight is the same Kendall Airlines operated Saab 340 that I took before. This time I am in exit row 8, which the gate attendant assured me was a better seat than the excellent exit row 3. I am not convinced. With row 3 there is no one in front of you who could put back their seat. I do love these sheepskin covered seats though. The flight is exceptionally smooth over a sea of while clouds from horizon to horizon. We did have a bit of very nauseating turbulence getting back down through the layers of cloud to land in Sydney, but it was blissfully brief.
I'm amazed that Ansett has allowed this connection; the Sydney/Melbourne leg is scheduled to depart just 15 minutes after we land. Jaybe and I walk 100 feet from one gate to the next, where our plane boards a few minutes later. This flight is an Airbus A320, configured as in Europe with seats that can instantly be converted from coach class to business class. I am in seat 5A, the first row of coach, but with no one sitting next to me I just rotate out my armrest for an instant business class seat. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I get business class food. The breakfast I am served is horrendous. The seats here are covered in regal blue crushed velour; very nice. Halfway from Sydney to Melbourne we finally break free of the blanket of clouds and I can see the hilly green countryside of western New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Another pleasant and smooth flight.
Unlike the prior instant connection, we have an hour and a half before the next flight. My United Airlines Premier Executive status gets me into the Ansett Gold Wings club without a hitch, and so I'm able to get a bit of a snack to make up for the evil omelet on the prior flight. Another pleasant an airy lounge. They have really nice nibblies here, including an excellent herbed chicken meat loaf with sun dried tomatoes. There is also something I' ve never seen before: a no-cell-phone zone. It is very reminiscent of the early days of no-smoking zones. Just as I was about to leave I went to the men's room and walked past the usual shower rooms and (get this) a bedroom! Wow! A bedroom! If I can't find accommodations in Melbourne, I guess I can always come here.
The final leg to Hobart is another Airbus A320. This time I am in seat 4G, a nice window seat, and the business class zone is two rows ahead of me. Again I have no seatmate, so I rotate my chair arm out to the business-class position. Here's something clever; the barf bags double as photo development bags. Now that's some serious marketing for you! You can either toss in your film, or your cookies.
Unfortunately the meal on this flight is Lasagna, which I can't eat due to my lactose intolerance. Good thing I got some food at the Gold Wings lounge.
We landed in Hobart, the largest city on Tasmania, without a hitch. Our baggage arrived from the least-formal baggage collection I have yet seen - they just drive in a cart full of bags and you grab yours off the back. We picked up a huge Ford Falcon from Hertz at an excellent Hertz #1 Gold rate and off we went. One special note: the map that Hertz gave us is far and away the best rental-car company map I have ever gotten. In fact, it is simply one of the best maps I've ever seen. The whole of Tasmania is represented, including small back roads. The quality of the paper and the printing is superb. What a nice touch!
After driving for a while I realized that I was absolutely famished, so I asked Jaybe to stop ASAP for a bite. Unfortunately, the first place we came to was Christine's Licensed Restaurant, Coffee Lounge and Tea Rooms located in the Penzances Pirate Bay Motel. (03-6250-3272.) There we each got a Rock Lobster Roll for $AU15 which consisted of lobster chunks floating in the world's nastiest mayo on a white bread bun. There is something awesomely awful about Aussie mayo; it is very sweet and a little vinegary, thick, and generally disagreeable. To eat a whole lot of it at once takes more fortitude that I can't usually muster. All the while Christine's was playing dreadful 60's & 70's easy-listening music. I think we were both quite pleased to get out of there.
Shortly we got to Port Arthur, a former penal colony 102km south east of Hobart. When the British had a criminal that they really wanted to get rid of, then sent them to Australia. The worst of the criminals sent to Australia were further exiled to Tasmania. And when a prisoner tried to escape Tasmania they were sent to Port Arthur, so remote and well guarded that escape was unthinkable (though many tried.) Port Arthur is located on the Tasman Peninsula, which is attached to mainland Tasmania by a tiny strip of land called Eaglehawk Neck. So narrow is Eaglehawk Neck that they were actually able to string a chain of dogs along its entire width to stop convicts escaping.
Nowadays the Port Arthur Historic Site is a really interesting tourist site, filled with the old buildings from the penal colony and plenty of historical information on this important slice of Australia's history. It is really well done. Jaybe and I had a great time walking the extensive grounds and examining the old buildings, which are in various states of ruin and repair. The museum is particularly well done. Its presentation of the materials was great, educational, and entertaining. I particularly liked walking to the church; set in rolling green hills, it looked exactly like the whole scene had been picked up from some small English country village.
Just 11km north of Port Arthur, we stopped at the Tasmanian Devil Park, a wildlife refuge for injured animals of many species, especially Tasmanian Devils. There we saw incredibly cute baby Tasmanian Devils, got to pet a baby wombat named Lilly, walked through fields full of wallabies and geese, and watched a movie about the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger.
As we were driving around, we kept seeing signs pointing towards "Tessellated
Pavement." Neither of us had any idea what "Tessellated Pavement" meant. I
thought it was a road hazard we were meant to avoid, but Jaybe was convinced
that we should check it out. Boy was he right! Instead of having signs saying
just "Tessellated Pavement", I think the signs should have said "The coolest
fucking thing you have ever seen." The Tessellated Pavement State Reserve,
located just off of the A9 north of Eaglehawk Neck is a section of beach that
appears to be paved with large stone tiles. Here is the official information
on this interesting formation:
The pavement appears tessellated (tiled) because the rocks forming it were
fractured by earth movements. The fractures are in three sets, one set runs
almost north, another north east, and a third, discontinuous set, runs north
north west. These last two sets produce the tiled appearance. The regularity
of the jointing attracted scientific attention as early as 1836 and was later
explained as due to electromagnetic forces acting on the particles of the
sedimentary rock as it consolidated.
The pavement appears tessellated (tiled) because the rocks forming it were fractured by earth movements. The fractures are in three sets, one set runs almost north, another north east, and a third, discontinuous set, runs north north west. These last two sets produce the tiled appearance. The regularity of the jointing attracted scientific attention as early as 1836 and was later explained as due to electromagnetic forces acting on the particles of the sedimentary rock as it consolidated.
[Note: Returning to Australia in 2004 I bought another Dawson's guide. They appear to have changed their format and become absolutely worthless. A total waste of AU$20. I wont be buying Dawson's again.]
After finishing our meal we piled back into the car and drove a short way up the A9 across the Forestier Penninsula to the town of Dunalley and the Potters Croft B&B (telephone 03-6253-5469.)
Wednesday February 16, 2000
It was a lovely morning at Potters Croft. Unfortunately they do one thing that I think is very lazy in a B&B: they simply leave breakfast supplies in the fridge in the room and you make your own. For me, part of the charm of a B &B is going down to breakfast and meeting the proprietors and other guests. Hi ho. It is a beautiful clear warm day with a few small wispy clouds to keep it interesting. Perfect.
After paying up we looked at our options for driving north: a long way on a paved road (basically doubling back to Hobart), or a short drive north on a dirt road that we had not yet been on. Of course we chose the dirt road. The C336 is a dirt road winding through the mountains of the Wielangta forest. It runs for about 35km from the tiny town of Copping to the small town of Orford where it connects with the paved A3. It was a pleasant enough drive, but was super dry and dusty with lots of big logging trucks coming the other way at speed. I guess the truckers and locals know this road well, because they were certainly driving it a lot faster than we were willing to do. Along the way we took a brief detour for the great views over the valley from Thumbs Viewpoint.
The A3 north was a fine drive with excellent sea views, cows, sheep, and road- kill. Shortly before Swansea we stopped at a beautiful deserted beach. On the path down to the beach we had the added bonus of seeing an echidna ( Australian spiny anteater) failing to hide at the side of the trail. It had its head hidden under some scrub, and presumably figured that since it couldn't see us, we couldn't see it. This might help explain why so many of Australia's native animals have gone extinct. Anyway, I thought it was really cool seeing an echidna in the wild. After a brief snooze on the beach we continued onward, stopping to look at the famous Spiky Bridge, a really weird bridge built with prison labor and topped with long sharp stone spikes. No one knows why the spikes were put there, they serve no apparent purpose, but they do make the bridge look intriguing.
In Swansea we stopped at a "take away" for a couple of Mrs. Macs Famous Meat Pies (uh, yum?) and sarsaparilla. By early afternoon we made it to our destination, the town of Bicheno, about 2/3's of the way up the northeast coast of Tasmania. For our first stop we went to the visitors center to sign up for that night's penguin tour with Bicheno Penguin & Adventure Tours ( Tasman Highway, Bicheno, 03-63-751-333) at a price of AU$12.00 per person. After those formalities were taken care of, we took the advice of the woman at the information counter and went over to the Old Tram Road B&B (3 Old Tram Road, 03-6375-1555, email@example.com), a beautiful little B&B with only two rooms. It is so new that it is not listed in any of my guidebooks. We got their last room and talked for a bit with the owner, Lee Rivers.
The penguin tour does not begin until after sunset so we had plenty of time and decided to head off to the major local attraction, Freycinet National Park, about 45 minutes south from Bichino on the Freycinet peninsula. The "thing to do" here is to hike up to a lookout overlooking Wineglass bay. The climb was steep but well tracked, and we made the round trip in about an hour. Though the view was nice, this was not the most interesting hike in the world and in retrospect I think I could have easily skipped it. It was nice to get some solid exercise though, after so much time in the car.
We got back in town in time for one of the most insanely beautiful sunsets it has ever been my privilege to see. I spent 15 minutes on the beach behind the B&B staring and taking photo after photo. It was amazing. For dinner we went across the street to Mary Harvey's Kitchen (corner of Burgess & James Streets, Bicheno, 03-6375-1430). I had the seafood platter of fried trevally, sauté ed trevally, smoked salmon, pickled octopus, squid, mussels, mustard mussels, oysters and fruit, finishing up with Australia's famous "Sticky Date Pudding" for desert. We got done with plenty of time before the penguin tour.
Apparently this is not the correct season for seeing the Little Blue Penguins, but nonetheless, the penguin tour was excellent. High season is late November, December, and early January. By this point in February there are very few penguins to be seen as the breeding season is over and the molting season has not yet begun. However, we did get to see something like 20 little blue penguins, and they were endearing and wonderful. Some were adults who had laid eggs very late, others that were molting very early, and still others were adolescents who were coming in to the beach for a night of "rest" from the rigors of swimming 24 hours a day.
Normally, little blue penguins spend 100% of their time at sea. In fact, they are only able to eat, drink and sleep at sea. Though an individual penguin will come up on land once or twice a month to "rest", they don't actually sleep there; they only sleep resting on their backs in the water. While on land they merely rest their weary flippers. They also come up on land to lay their eggs, incubate them, and feed their chicks. This is an enormously exhausting process for the little guys as they hardly get to eat, drink or sleep during the two months of laying and rearing. After that effort is over, they go back out to sea and gorge themselves so that they can regain some body weight and then come back up on land for another month to molt, again without eating, drinking or sleeping. Ouch. They are creatures of hard-wired instinct and always come back to the same burrow at the same place, following the same path, come hell, high water, or highway. If you are in their path as they are heading to their burrow they will practically walk between your legs. And they are cute as hell. About 12 inches tall and slightly bluish, they look ridiculous and wonderful at the same time. The whole evening was pure magic. The penguin tour people did an excellent job teaching us about the penguins and keeping us out of their way. I have heard that the penguin viewing on Phillip Island in southern Victoria has been turned into a terrible spectacle with concrete bleachers, flood lights on the beach, and sports-like commentary over loud speakers. Here it was a fairly naturalistic experience where only the guides had flashlights and we tried to be as unobtrusive to the penguins as possible. The experience left me wanting to come back next December to see the action in full swing.
Thursday February 17, 2000
The Old Tram Road B&B was terrific. Quiet, nice beds, big room, good shower, I could go on and on. Its only drawback is that it is not actually on the waterfront, but one block away. There is a beautiful garden of flowers and fruit trees in back, with a huge picture window for bird watching. Jaybe and I had a great breakfast in the breakfast room and Lee (the owner) let me dial up to the internet from her kitchen. What a great way to start a day of travel.
Jaybe went down to the beach for a swim while I watched the birds in the back yard. Reluctantly we got going around 10am. Just as we were leaving town we saw signs for a blowhole, which we had to check out. It was really cool, shooting blasts of water 12 feet into the air. You could climb out onto the rocks and stand right next to it, which got Jaybe completely soaked when he became a bit too cavalier.
A little bit further out of town we stopped again at the East Coast Bird Life Animal Park, which, incidentally, is for sale. Anyone want a new career running a private zoo? Admission was UA$7.50, plus an extra dollar for bird feed. Inside the place was a huge, rambling park full of free-running birds including different kinds of geese, emus, ostriches (which thankfully were caged), and some kind of flightless bird about the size of a chicken with evil red eyes and movements that were identical to those of the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park". These devil-birds from hell would scream at each other with guttural mother-in-law screeches as they fought over food. It was eerie and hilarious at the same time. Who says the dinosaurs are gone? And, of course, they had the obligatory Tasmanian Devils.
Continuing north along the A3, we stopped at a wonderful beach at Four Mile Creek where I finally stuck my feet in the Tasman sea. This nameless little beach had nice sand, shells, clear cool water, warm sun and a nice breeze. Perfect. We then stopped again for a lunch of cornish pasties in a place called Scamander. Scamander was rather odd in that virtually every building and parcel of land had a "For Sale" sign on it. Anyone want to buy a town?
We continued our scenic drive through northeastern Tasmania along the A3 until we finally arrived in Launceston, Tasmania's second largest city. Launceston is absolutely beautiful, full of ornate Victorian buildings, pleasant walks, and pedestrian malls. It is very picturesque. We decided that we would not stop here for the night, but dinner seemed like a good idea. Finding ourselves standing right outside of "Shrimps", a Fodor-recommended restaurant, we went on in for a feed. Shrimps (72 George St. 03-6334-0584) is cute on the outside, but not on the inside. However, what it lacked in interior character, it made up for in food. The spicy shrimp and pumpkin soup was very good. I followed that up with excellent farm-grown local rainbow trout grilled in butter with lemon butter sauce. Yum. A worthwhile stop.
Driving west, we decided we would see how far we could get before we got tired. It was a great drive with another incredibly beautiful sunset, the air was that perfect temperature that I can never quite manage to describe, the sky red and pink and purple over dark mountains. We made good progress, as highway 1 out of Launceston was a good quality 110kph road. Eventually we decided that it would be a good idea to try to figure out where to stay. I pulled out the Fodors, Tasmania Temptations Holiday Book, and Dawson's to try to find out where there would be a good B&B or boutique hotel somewhere in reasonable driving range. Fodor's gave a "star" rating to "The Lighthouse" in Ulverstone, calling it an "unexpected delight." We got on the cellphone and found that they had room, offering us a suite with two separate bedrooms for a really reasonable rate. Sounded great. When we got there it was far from "delightful". I wonder how much Fodor's got paid for that description. I hope it was a lot! What we got for AU$70 per person was a boring, modern hotel room in an ugly hotel with a silly lighthouse gimmick. Far from being a suite, the room they put us in was a small square room with two twin beds and no windows. The room had a strong cloying smell of baby powder, mostly masking an old cigarette odor. Jaybe was prepared to settle in, but there was no way I was accepting this. I went down and complained, so they put us in two separate rooms for AU$95 each. My new room was slightly larger than the first and had window which was bolted shut. It also smelled of baby powder, though not as strongly. I sure wish there was some way to allow fresh air into the room. This hotel is definitely not recommended.
After unpacking I went down to the "casino" in the hotel (a bar with a couple slot machines) and had a local beer (Boags) on tap. I must say it was very good. The bartendress told me that there is a huge forest fire where we are going tomorrow. Hmmm. Apparently some roads are closed, so we'll see if we can make it at all. We also talked about little blue penguins, which apparently come up on the beach here too. She tells me that she and her friends just go out on the beach at night and watch the penguins walk on by. However, it isn't the right season here either, so I didn't check it out.
Friday February 18, 2000
It is another stunning, clear day. The bed was quite comfortable, despite the cloying baby-powder smell. I had a small and pathetic breakfast at the hotel (included), then checked out. Continuing our penguin theme, we decided to drive 12km to the west to the town of Penguin, which Fodor's calls "a charming little town with little penguin statues for litter baskets on its sidewalks." Yes, the litter baskets do have penguins on them, and there is a giant statue of a penguin in the center of town, but otherwise the town of Penguin is an irrelevant detour. Presumably the same Fodor author that was " delighted" by the Lighthouse hotel, was "charmed" by Penguin. We then drove back the 12km towards Ulverstone to pick up the highway south towards our real goal, Cradle Mountain.
The highway signage here is excellent. We had no problem finding where we wanted to go, even though we were traversing a maze of tiny back roads winding through farmland. The scenery was all beautiful rolling farmland, though Tasmania is much browner than I expected. Apparently they are experiencing one of the worst droughts in years. When it is really green this place must be breathtaking. There were great pastoral views on the way to Wilmot along with many smoke filled valleys due to fires, and lots and lots of for-sale signs. Anyone want to buy a farm or two?
Eventually we finished our twisting drive through farms, forests, and fires to the Lemonthyme lodge in Moina (telephone 03-6492-1112, http://www.lemonthyme.southcom.com.au). The Lemonthyme lodge is wonderful. Rustic but comfortable, warm and inviting. It was especially pleasant by contrast with last nights lodging. Their brochure calls it "wilderness style accommodation, with an added touch of comfort." I couldn't agree more. We checked in and then asked the restaurant to make us a picnic lunch to take on a hike. Half an hour later we were ready to go; the kitchen staff presented us with a really great backpack filled with food, and we went off on a beautiful hike to Champagne Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
We arrived first at Champagne falls, which were beautiful and free flowing despite the unusual lack of rainfall. We spent some time taking in the scene, then proceeded on to Bridal Veil Falls, which was less dramatic but had better spots for picnicking. I would love to see this one when there is real water coming over it. We opened the lunch pack to find it filled with sandwiches, a thermos of soup, fruit, boxes of juice, and snickers bars. Mmmmm, mmm. Afterwards I just lay in the dappled sun for an hour listening to the sounds of the falls, while Jaybe poked around in the little ponds and gullies at the base of the falls. Finally we hiked back down. I took advantage of the laundry room to get some clean clothes, then sat on the back porch and read and write.
Jaybe and I dined in the very pleasant dining room here at the lodge. It is a big, comfortable, rustic room where they serve an excellent menu. I had the backstraps of lamb, which were superb, followed by a strange blancmange- like desert called a "bavarios". After desert I found the complimentary tray of awesome blond fudge, and regretted spending my empty-calorie allowance on the bavarios. Part way through dinner Jaybe spotted Dick Smith, an Australia celebrity, at another table. Every town in the country has a Dick Smith electronics store, adorned with Dick Smith's face on the yellow, black and white logo. Even though I have only been in Australia for a short time, I was easily able to confirm Jaybe's identification of this famous visage.
The after dinner entertainment at Lemonthyme is the nightly feeding of the wallabies and possums from the back porch. Long before the feeding begins, dozens of small wallabies start assembling behind the building. Tasmania is positively covered with a small type of wallaby called a Pomela. They stand about 2 feet tall, are a mousy gray color, and always look like they have no idea what they are doing there. The ones that dine nightly at Lemonthyme have lost most of their fear of humans, but still maintain a couple of feet distance between themselves and the overly inquisitive people. The possums, by contrast, feel no reticence at all about walking right up onto the porch to eat anything that is offered. At the appointed hour one of the staff comes out with a huge bowl of chopped fruit and veggies for the feeding. Shortly the air was filled (really filled) with the contented chomping of dozens of marsupials. If you've never been surrounded by the sound of lots of little critters feeding on apples, you haven't lived. Let me tell you! It was magic.
As if that weren't enough, we had signed up for the nighttime wildlife spotting tour, which left immediately after the feeding. Jaybe and I, plus two others, were taken on a two hour jeep ride by a local forest ranger looking for nocturnal wildlife. The ranger had an amazing knack for finding creatures in the darkness using his spotlight. Apparently the secret is watching for the flash of their red eyes as the light sweeps over them. We saw a multitude of creatures: pomela wallabies, possums, wombats galore, an echidna, and even several quolls. It was very cool.
Finally it was bedtime, but I just couldn't sleep due to sounds of rustling and crashing going on outside. I went out to investigate and found that the trees were full of animals that clearly knew nothing of the value of stealth. As I was looking up into the trees a possum came right over to me begging for food. I sat there for a while petting this possum, then finally went back in for a good night's sleep.
Saturday February 19, 2000
Got up this morning to be faced with an excellent eggs breakfast in the restaurant at the lodge. Afterwards, Jaybe and I headed out the backdoor of the lodge for a beautiful walk down to "Fern Gully". One of the great things about Lemonthyme lodge is that you don't need to leave to have an excellent hike. The well prepared path traveled down between tree ferns, over streams, and along logs to a wonderful gully. At one point I turned a corner and was surprised to find myself face to face with a small, gray pomela wallaby standing by the side of the trail. I'm not sure which of us was more startled. Regardless, neither of us turned and ran; we just stared each other down for a while. Eventually Jaybe and I headed on down the path and the pomela went back to foraging.
Sadly, checkout time arrived far too soon, so we headed back to the lodge, packed up, and checked out. I got to talking with the clerk at the front desk and learned that apparently we had been very lucky to get a room. Normally a one to two month advance booking would be required for a Friday night in February. As it turned out there was a wedding scheduled for Sunday, which had booked up the entire place for Saturday night. That had left rooms available on Friday. Otherwise, we would certainly have been turned away.
We left behind wonderful Lemonthyme and drove off towards Cradle Mountain, one of Tasmania's most beloved mountains. It didn't take long to find this striking twin-peaked mountain and the beautiful Dove Lake which sits at its base. It was a near perfect day for this outing, sunny with clear cool air. Apparently Cradle Mountain is only visible for some 30 days a year, so we are quite lucky; the rest of the time it is shrouded in cloud. Jaybe and I did the scenic hike around Dove Lake, taking in the terrific views of the mountain. The hike was actually more of a walk, as the trail is quite flat and perfectly maintained with nice sections of boardwalk next to the waters edge. Three quarters of the way around we came to a bit of boardwalk overlooking a piece of the lake with a quartz beach, shaded by trees. A dozen different kinds of birds were singing in the trees. I had a perfect moment lying on the boardwalk listening to the birds with Brian Eno's "On Some Faraway Beach" wafting through my head.
At the end we stopped off at the café in the Cradle Mountain lodge. I had a sampler plate of different local game meats, most of which I couldn't bring myself to eat. After all, how can you eat a wallaby after a day and half of enjoying their company? I took the opportunity to get some literature on the Cradle Mountain lodge (telephone 03-132-469, www.poresorts.com.au), since the Lemonthyme lodge can be so difficult to get into. Checking the place out, it did not seem like it would be as nice as the Lemonthyme lodge, but would do as a second choice.
Striking out for Launceston, we had an eerie drive through fire-damaged forests, rows of flames clearly visible on the hills. We drove along while listening to my tape of Poi Dog Pondering's second album, "Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea." I pulled out a can of Pringles I had bought. As we munched through the "deck chips", I was amazed by the ingredients list on the can, given in 10 different languages. It turns out that the Pringles were manufactured in Belgium. That's a long way to go for a potato chip!
After thoroughly perusing my many guide books, then calling ahead on Jaybe's cell phone, we ended up choosing lodging at a place called Waratah on York, 12 York St., 03-6331-2081. It turned out to be a very pleasant hotel in a restored 1862 home. The rate was AU$110 per room, which seemed fair.
The proprietor of the hotel recommended a restaurant that Jaybe and I had walked by earlier. Star Bar Café was just what the doctor ordered; low key, fun, and good. It was a bar and restaurant that attracted an older crowd, some families, and a few couples on dates. I started with a really good Boags beer on draft and an appetizer of focaccia, which, while good, was a very small portion. For my main I had the "super supreme spaghetti" with chilies. It was the spiciest thing I have ever tried to eat, and I love spicy food. After a few bites my head was going to explode, so I called the waitress over and sent it back, reordering the version without chilies. I never expected to put Australia down as the place where I had food that was too spicy to eat.
Sunday February 20, 2000
My nights rest at the Waratah on York was excellent, but the included breakfast (bad toast and coffee) was mediocre at best. After packing up and checking out it was a short drive to the Launceston Airport where we returned car then boarded one of Kendall Airlines brand new Canadair jets (built by Bombardier) to Melbourne. I kinda have to give a minor thumbs-down to the Canadair plane; the seats are just too damned narrow. Fortunately, the flight is very brief and the flight attendants were extremely cheerful. While boarding one attendant said to me "How're ya goin'?" (Aussie for "how are you ?") I thought she said, "Where are you going?" and wondered to myself "don't you know?" It was very sad leaving Tasmania, but at least I know I can always come back and buy the whole island.
At the airport in Melbourne I said my "goodbyes" to Jaybe. He was continuing on to his home in Coffs Harbour, while I was staying in Melbourne to check out Australia's second city.
I had a very hard time deciding where I wanted to stay in Melbourne. Many of the places on my list were either booked up, out of the way, or extremely expensive. In the end I fell back on good old Sheraton; specifically the Sheraton Towers Southgate (1 Southgate Ave, Southbank.) My taxi ride from the airport was a fairly expensive A$32. The Sheraton Towers Southgate is a great hotel with a very beautiful marble lobby. My Starwood Gold status got me upgraded to a room with a river view for the Super Saver Weekend rate of AU$205.
During my research I had had a hard time figuring out what and where " Southgate" was. It turns out to be a nice example of urban restoration - old docks turned into a great mall - part open air, part covered - filled with interesting shops, galleries, and lots of restaurants. The Sheraton is very conveniently located; basically in the mall, it is right across the Yarra river from the Central Business District, and just down the river from the huge casino/entertainment complex. In short, it is either in or next two all the major centers of activity in Melbourne.
My room is very, very nice. The bed is super comfy. This hotel is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection, so the fine amenities were no surprise. However, on the 14th floor with a great river view, there is noise from roads and the train line across the river, and the buildings across the river light up my room at night. I guess that is the price of a prime location. There were some other negatives to the room as well: the bathroom had a strange musty-mildew smell that housekeeping was unable to fix. Also, the room's second phone line was not connected, so I couldn't dial up with my computer and speak on the phone at the same time (oh, woe is me.) This was the first room I've ever seen that offered WebTV Internet access. I was keen to try it out but the charge was $5 for the first 10 minutes, so I passed.
After settling in I hauled out my trusty Fodor's to decide what to do. I'm afraid Fodor's really let me down when it comes to Melbourne. To start off, their recommended tour guide is now only doing groups. Furthermore, Fodor's coverage of Melbourne is pathetic with respect to lodging and dining. There are many listings for Melbourne suburbs, but you would think that downtown Melbourne was abandoned. So, I got a tourist walking map of Melbourne from the hotel and headed into the Southgate mall for a quick lunch. I chose a sandwich type place called Rhumba's in a really nice food court. As mall food courts go, this is really exceptional. My sandwich was fine and definitely fast. It was also an exceptional people-watching spot.
Though it wasn't really a logical place to begin, I decided to start my tour with the Queen Victoria weekend market; I didn't want to miss this weekend- only affair. Disappointingly, the majority of the market consisted of stalls selling the same kinds of tee-shirts and trinkets that bombard you on the streets of Bangkok, but at twice the Thai prices. Fortunately, that was not all there was to the market. At some length I found the food and fruit areas, and was impressed with the quality and variety of items on offer. At one point I experienced a disorienting bit of culture shock buying longans from a Thai woman. I pointed at the fruit and said, "lam yai!" (the Thai name for longans.) She looked at me confused and in a heavy Aussie accent said "what?" I was having a major Thailand flashback and couldn't quite manage the concept of a woman who was clearly ethnic Thai, selling Thai fruit, but not speaking Thai. I had a good laugh at myself and bought the fruit in English.
I ate longans and fried dough, looked at cheap leather bags and sunglasses, and watched some street performers, before continuing my walk around town. Further along I came to Melbourne Central mall (300 Londsale St., 03-9629-8888) with a strange glass cone on top. Inside I found that there was an old historic shot factory (a factory where they make round lead shot), around which the mall had been constructed. Coop's Shot Tower had been a Melbourne landmark practically since its construction in 1889. Now it lives on inside this odd mall, rising up into a cone of glass, which it shares with a hot air balloon and a period bi-plane.
Visiting the mens room at the mall I discovered something that took me completely by surprise: there was a locked biohazard box in the men's room for depositing used syringes! Very progressive! I wish America could get over its fears and take such forward thinking approaches to reducing the spread of AIDS. [As I continued traveling around I discovered that this was not an isolated instance; syringe disposal boxes in rest rooms appear to be quite common.]
Continuing my perambulations I passed the attractive Melbourne Library building, and the absolutely fascinating Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, each of which are well worth a look. Getting a bit tired, I proceeded down Swanson St. towards my hotel. I stopped along the way at Café L'incontro at the corner of Little Collins St. and Swanson St. where I managed to confuse the barista by asking for such an unimaginable beverage as "black iced coffee". After all, who could possibly want iced coffee without milk? Not to be thwarted and intent on spreading my coffee memes, I ordered a double shot of espresso over a glass of ice. When the barista brought it to me, a woman in line behind me said "Oooh, what's that? I'd like one of those." I had to smile.
I got a dinner recommendation from Steve, the Sheraton's excellent concierge. He sent me to Blue Train Café in the mall next door (mid level Southgate Landing, 03-9696-0111). When I got there I had a bad feeling that this wasn't going to be that good. Still, it was full of people and there was a line out the door for tables, with a 15-minute wait on a Sunday night at 8:45pm. That is always a good sign. I was able to get seated immediately at the bar, where I continued my day of spreading memes by ordering an iced tea. No such luck. So, I ordered a pot of tea and a glass of ice. For dinner I had steamed butterfish with soy in a bamboo basket. It came in a bamboo steamer with broccoli, baby patti-pan squash, spinach, diakon radish and beans. It was a perfect, delightful, and zoneful dish, with a light, delicate flavor. Truly an excellent meal. The restaurant itself was packed with a boisterous mid-twenties crowd, with techno-house music playing and interesting art on the walls.
Monday February 21, 2000
I started the morning with a long and insightful visit to the concierge desk, where Steve, the brilliant concierge, provided me with a great map and a lengthy set of suggestions for a walk.
First stop, The Block Arcade, a beautiful old building with wonderful mosaic floors and interesting small shops. I tried to have lunch at Hopetoun Tea Rooms, but they wouldn't let me sit where I wanted, so I left. I hopped on the red Circle Tram, a free trolley that runs around the perimeter of the Central Business District with a running commentary on the historic sites of interest. I got off at Batman park, an uninteresting city park on the river, across from the Crown Casino and Entertainment complex. Thought basically featureless, the park does have a good view of the interesting Exhibition Center building.
By now it was getting really hot, so I got out of the park and walked over to the 830-foot tall Rialto Tower. There was no wait at all for the AU$9 ride up to the top. The information and signs at the Rialto were very good, and there was an interesting high-tech computerized camera system that you could use to view the town. It was a crystal clear day making the views excellent, except that Melbourne just isn't a very interesting city from above. The facades of the buildings are great from the street; from the sky it is rather boring. I had a suitably expensive soda, then headed back down.
According to Fodor's, nothing exists west of Elizabeth St., but this is clearly wrong. There is the Rialto tower, Le Meridien hotel next door, and several more handsome buildings on Collins St., one with a fanciful burgundy clock tower. Further down Collins St. sits the beautiful ANZ bank building, which was formerly a stock exchange. Inside, behind the lobby there is a wonderful empty room full of granite columns. In the basement they house the Museum of Banking in a modern room that is as boring as the rooms upstairs are fine.
I went back to the Hopetoun Tea Rooms (Block Arcade, 282 Collins St., 9650-2777) and, ignoring their request that I go sit in a back corner, I plopped myself down at a nice seat in the front. The chicken, avocado and bacon sandwich was excellent, served with mango mayonnaise. As expected, the English Breakfast tea was also outstanding. I sat and ate my lunch and read the little card that described how the tearooms were founded in 1892. Meanwhile, a nearby couple glowered at me, presumably because I was seated alone at a table for four, even though there were plenty of other tables open and no one needed my table. I'm sure it just violated their Victorian sensibilities.
One problem with walking around Melbourne was the flies. The same as in Sydney in the summer, there were innumerable flies everywhere. People say the winds blow them in from surrounding farms. They don't bite, but they sure do suck.
I had wanted to see the Parliament building, but self-guided tours are not allowed. The next tour wasn't due to start for quite a while, and having just sat and eaten lunch I wasn't keen to sit and wait. Instead I continued next door to the Parliament gardens where they have a really neat modern water fountain; it is very hard to describe, but a system of pipes allows jellyfish- like cones of water to cascade downward onto a flat concrete platform. The sight and sound are wonderful. The rest of Parliament gardens were fairly uninspiring, but just up the street Carlton Gardens were relaxing and peaceful. Carlton Gardens is the site of the Royal Exhibition hall, which was closed, and home to a really wonderful classical fountain.
Walking down the street I made a curious observation: People neither walk on the left nor the right here. It's just one big melee up and down the street. Wedges of people confront each other in crosswalks. The bigger one wins, crossing the street unimpeded, the smaller group parts, flowing around on either side. Very odd.
I attempt to see the famous 115-foot domed reading room at the State Library, but it is closed for 2 years for renovations. As far as Melbourne goes, Fodor's is really letting me down. Heading back south I jumped on the circle train where a man was giving unsolicited tourist information to each person on board. I couldn't help wondering if that was his job, or if he was just eccentric.
I hopped off the circle train at Saint Paul's Cathedral where I had a look around, then continued on for a well-deserved beer at the landmark Young & Jackson pub. The pub is best known for its scandalous nude painting of "Chloe." My late twentieth century sensibilities did not allow me to be suitably scandalized. In fact, I was barely titillated. However, the beer was good. It turned out I was 5 cents short, but the bartender was unfazed, "No problem, mate." Finishing up back at the hotel I couldn't help reflecting on how much Fodor's had let me down, and how excellent Steve-the-concierge's recommendations had been!
For dinner I found myself in the mood for sushi. I called down to Steve to get a recommendation. He suggested "Waterfront" at the Crown Casino complex, just a short walk away. He tried to get me a reservation, but it turned out they were full, so he booked me into another restaurant at the casino named " Koko". I walked over and on the way passed Waterfront. Indeed, on a Monday night there was a line right out the door. Waterfront turns out not to be a Japanese restaurant at all, but instead is an upscale seafood restaurant with a raw-bar that has some sushi. Perhaps it's just as well that I was going to a true Sushi restaurant.
Koko is a very stylish Japanese restaurant on the 3rd floor of the Crown Casino complex building. It is very open and airy, with lots of well-dressed people sitting at the many teppan tables. There is also a very small sushi bar, which is where I went. I was immediately served some absolutely excellent green tea while I looked over the sushi options. I ordered a few a la carte pieces and also a "new style sashimi" from the menu. For AU$15, the " new style sashimi" turned out to be a huge rose of raw salmon, and another giant rose of a raw white fish on a bed of seaweed. It was exquisitely beautiful. Upon presentation, the waitress poured a small vessel of boiling broth over the fish, which slightly cooked it. The fish itself was excellent, though I felt that the seaweed and hot broth had a slightly oceanic taste, which distracted rather than added to the fish. Nonetheless, it was worth it for the beautiful presentation alone, and at a scant AU$15 was a screaming bargain.
For my a la carte sushi I had yellowtail (hamachi), tuna (maguro), and Tasmanian salmon (sake.) The salmon was excellent, the other two were just good. With my sushi I also ordered a bottle of Australian made sake called Go Shu. It was a bit thin, nicely drinkable.
As I was finishing up my dinner, from the corner of my eye I noticed huge flames leaping up outside! I walked over to the window to see the hourly flame and light show outside the front of the casino. From three huge columns in front of the building giant balls of gas flame were shot up into the sky. Being on the third floor of the building the flame nozzles were around foot level, making it quite a show.
After dinner I did a much more thorough canvassing of the Crown Casino complex. I am not much of a casino aficionado, and I certainly can't comment on the quality of the games or the house payout, but I was generally unimpressed with the casino itself. It was far better than the Indian casinos one finds in Washington State, but it was a joke next to the gaming halls of Las Vegas. The complex outside of the gaming rooms was much more exciting. On the waterfront outside the buildings are some really nice fountains; I have already reported on the very cool flame jets. Inside the buildings there are more interesting fountains and light shows. Again, the spectacle pales next to Las Vegas, but was nonetheless entertaining.
For those who are not inclined to gamble, the Crown Casino complex also offers many restaurants, bars, a movie theatre, and various discos/clubs featuring different kinds of music and ambiance. I checked out one club catering to the 18 to twenty-something crowd and was surprised to find it crowded on a Monday night. Everyone was far too well dressed to be unemployed, but I'm really not sure how they were planning to be up bright and early the next day for work, school, or whatever these kids do with their days. Regardless of my economic musings, everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Tuesday February 22, 2000
It was a rainy morning, and I needed a break so I decided to "take the day off." Rather than braving the city, I simply breakfasted on pancakes at the hotel, which were OK, but not great. Later, I went around the corner to the travel agency in the mall and booked airfare to go to Byron Bay the next day, then did a little poking around in shops. I stopped in for some really bad laksa for lunch at the Noodle Bar, not recommended. After lunch I tried to do the tour of The Block arcade, but it was cancelled due to lack of bookings, sigh.
By this point the weather had improved a bit. Fodor's raved about the high tea offered at the Windsor Hotel, so I made a booking, changed into more appropriate garb and headed over. Only two other tables were occupied at 4: 15pm; clearly my advanced booking was completely unnecessary. The tea and pastries were very fine and very caloric, hitting the spot quite well as I enjoyed listening to Mozart's Moonlight sonata being played on the stereo. As I was leaving, the concierge stopped me and offered to show me around the hotel, filling me in a bit on its history. Having suitably overdosed on carbohydrates and sugar, I waddled back to the Sheraton, and fell into an insulin shock, comatose nap.
I woke up in time to get dressed and head for dinner at Est Est Est, (440 Clarendon St, South Melbourne 9682-5688.) One of Melbourne's best restaurant, Est Est Est is super attractive, with a modern but stylish white dining room featuring well done red velvet chairs with dark wood against white walls and table cloths. The place attracts a very smart, attractive, mostly older crowd. I was given a nice pre-appetizer: Brandot of cod with crayfish-wine reduction sauce. For an appetizer I ordered Tortellinis of yabbi (Australian crayfish). Beautiful. The Yabby was perfectly cooked, rare but not underdone. It had a wonderful aroma, bathed in an interesting sabayon sauce. The pasta too was cooked to perfection; it had an excellent texture and a hint of wheatiness. The dish was complimented with a tower of leeks, carrots, and veggies - a beautiful garnish but really hard to eat without causing it to collapse. My main was wonderfully tender lamb strips stacked around a column of spinach and young beets, with a slightly sweet sauterne sauce reduction. The whole thing rested on top of a strongly flavored cake of carrot, parsley, salt and pepper. Mmmmmm. My dinner demanded a nice glass of wine, in this case Moorodock Chardonnay served very cold. Possessing a very fine bouquet with slightly harsh finish. It was a stingy portion for AU$13.
My enjoyment was slightly diminished by the presence of a woman at another table who had the most annoying "yeah" I have ever heard. It seemed like the only thing she ever said was "yeah", and she said it loudly and frequently. I kept on hearing "Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeaaaah." I wanted to go over to her table and smack her.
For desert, a soufflé of Valrhona's 'pur caraibe' chocolate with a soft truffle center and toasted almond-milk sorbet. Wow. Accompanying I ordered a 1996 Lillypilly Estate Noble Sauvingnon from Leeton, NSW. However, the waiter recommended that I have the DeBartoli "Noble One" instead. In the end he brought me a glass of the "Noble One" and a small taste of the Lillypilly to compare. They were both excellent; the Lillypilly was sweeter with more fruit, and the "Noble One" had a more complex, woody and slightly sharp character.
Wednesday February 23, 2000
Today I returned to my favorite place in Australia: Byron Bay. From Melbourne I flew an Ansett Airlines Airbus A100 to Coolangata. Fortunately this was a direct flight; I had feared I would have to stop-over in Sydney. At Coolangata airport I rented a car at Hertz, again getting the Hertz #1 Gold upgrade from a "standard" size Toyota Camry, to a large Ford Falcon. I'm not sure that it really is a better car, but it certainly is a bigger one. It's funny, in the US I would probably choose a Camry over a big Ford any day.
Driving south from Coolangata to Byron Bay I made a brief stop at Tropical Fruit World. I decided not to take the tour as I had done it last time I was here, and they are now charging an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Instead, I browsed the fruit shop and bought two fruits, one a Mamsy Sapote which was yummy, and another which I forgot to note the name of. The sapote tasted like a mild sapodilla (what the Thai's call Lah Mot), and was quite excellent. The other fruit had a flavor as unmemorable as its name.
Last time I was in Australia I got a photo-radar speeding ticket. I hadn't even known I had gotten it at the time. When I got home from that trip I received a ticket in the mail and had a hell of a time arranging to pay it. This time I figured I'd be smart and bring along a radar detector. I pulled my radar detector out of my luggage, plugged it in, and proceeded on my way. About 10 minutes later I noticed a police car trailing me - the first police car I had seen anywhere in the country. He followed me for some time as I kept one eye on the speedometer and another on the road.
After a while his blue lights went on and I pulled over. "Do you know why I stopped you?" He asked. "No, sir." I honestly replied. I didn't have a clue. I knew I hadn't gone as much as 1 kilometer over the speed limit. "That's a radar detector, isn't it?" "Uh, yes sir, officer, it is." "You will hand that to me now, please." He said. He took my detector and then proceeded to disappear into his car for the interminable wait that seems to be endemic to traffic stops the world over. Eventually he came back, informed me that radar detectors are illegal in Australia and that mine was now confiscated, and then handed me a ticket for (get this) AU$1050. Yup, that's one thousand and fifty Australian dollars. Nothing to sneeze at. Not so smart a plan, apparently.
I finally got to Byron Bay and checked in at the lovely Frangipani Cottage B&B (49 Massinger St. 02-6685-8191), where I had stayed two years before. [Note: as of 2004 the kind folks at Frangipani Cottage have retired. It is no longer a B&B.] For dinner I had a mediocre pizza at Earth'n'Sea Pizza & Pasta at 11 Lawson St. Following dinner I indulged in an excellent massage at Relax Haven at the Belongil Beachouse on Childe St. (02-6685-8304). Two years ago I had one of the best massages of my life there. Now, two years later with a different masseuse, it was still excellent. It remains a great value at only AU$35 for an hour. Later in the evening I went by the Art Factory Backpacker's to check it out. It looks like there is a good restaurant, theatre, and movie house attached to the hostel. It also appeared to be really crowded (not cramped, but full.) I wandered around town a bit, then went back to my B&B.
Thursday February 24, 2000
I shared the traditional Frangipani communal breakfast with the other guests at the B&B then went out to putter around town. Lunch was an excellent warm duck on salad with watercress, orange, pecan and "witlof" lettuce at the Byronian Café on Jonson St. (02-6685-6754.) At the table next to mine, a young boy shakes salt onto the table over and over, then onto his father's newspaper; he coos with joy when dad brushes the salt off onto the floor. I had a massive craving for a rice-milk latte, but, of course the café had never heard of such a thing. Undaunted, I went across the street to the health food supermarket, bought a box of rice milk, then came back and had them make me an iced rice-milk latte to accompany my lunch. Mmmmm, mmmm!
For some reason I found myself extremely homesick, so I called home for 45 minutes from one of the backpacker's "call home cheap" places. The tab came to about AU$12, a fair deal. I wanted to go sea kayaking, but was told that the winds and waters were really stiff. Not my cup of tea, so I decided against. Instead I drove to an industrial park just out of town to find the studios of a glass artists named Colin Heaney (6 Acacia St, 02-6685-7044, http://www.colin-heaney.nu). I had seen a photo of one of his pieces in the Byron Bay visitor's guide and wanted to see more. I was blown away by the works displayed at his studio. I ended up staying for a couple of hours, talking with everyone there, watching them blow pieces, and learning about the history of his evolving technique. It was a really great time.
Finally towards evening I went to the beach to read by the sound of the waves.
For dinner tonight I checked out a place called Fresh (7 Jonson St, 02-6685- 7810). It was both fresh and excellent. My meal of swordfish came on a bed of mixed vegetable salsa topped with cilantro pesto. Yummy. Though the place was nearly empty when I sat down at 7pm, it was full and had a line when I left at 8.
My after dinner walk took me to Beach Hotel pub where I had a couple beers while chatting with some people I had met during the day. The usual assortment of street performers were out providing entertainment and diversion. Later on I enjoyed yet another brew at the Friendly Railroad pub. For some reason the Friendly Railroad was really hopping. Someone handed me a coupon for free admission to the Carpark club, a house-music club just down the street. I popped over there, but it was completely dead, so I bailed out and went home.
Friday February 25, 2000
Last night while enjoying an innocent piece of chewing gum I managed to pull out a filling, so my first stop this morning was to visit Dr. John Patterson, one of Byron Bay's several dentists. It turns out that the damage was less severe than I feared, so he was able to have me patched up and going again in about a half an hour. Putting my new chompers to use, I lunched on chicken salad at the Arts Factory backpackers.
The big plan for today was to finally go sea kayaking. Byron Bay Sea Kayaks ( 70 Lawson St, 02-6685-5830) pretty much has a lock on the local sea kayaking franchise, which is fine since they do a good job of it. I was impressed that they had discouraged me from going the other day when the conditions were poor; many companies would have just taken my money and not cared about the quality of my experience. Today the weather was excellent, the seas were manageable and the trip was on!
I met up with the guides and other guests on the hill behind the beach on Lawson St. Byron Bay Sea Kayaks provides two-man kayaks, paddles, life preservers, guides and instruction. They also have a lockup where you can leave your valuables while out on the water. We had a bit of a snafu getting going as two thirds of the guests were missing. Eventually they turned up - it seems they had been waiting at the wrong place. We got going about 45 minutes late but had an amazing time nonetheless. Since the canoes are all two man kayaks, and I was alone, I shared one with the guide. This was particularly awesome since he was a strong and experience kayaker, so I didn't have to work so hard. Also, I got to hear lots of extra information about the seas, the aquatic animals, and life in Byron Bay.
Out on the water we had a great time sliding up and down the waves and generally splashing about. Almost immediately we saw a sea turtle swimming along the top of the water - a real treat. Then we started to find schools of dolphins - the signature sight which makes kayaking in Byron Bay so special. The dolphins were in a very playful mood, chasing schools of fish, jumping in the waves, swimming under and around our kayaks, and generally making a wonderful show. Seeing dolphins is not guaranteed, so I was elated to get to see so many, and find them so active.
In Australia it seems to be a requirement that you can't have any kind of tourist activity without the serving of tea and biscuits. Therefore, we dutifully headed in to one of the areas beaches for our snack. The guide explained how to "surf" a kayak in to the beach and then pointed everyone in the right direction. Since I was in his boat, all I had to do was lay back and enjoy a flawless ride right up onto the sand. I got out and watched as the other boats flailed about attempting the same trick. After a pleasant break and the mandatory refreshments, we geared back up, paddled back out to sea and then in to our original starting point.
I was as tired as I was blissed out, so I went back to the B&B for a shower and some relaxation.
For dinner I had a simple penne pasta at The Piggery restaurant in the Arts Factory. Entertainment this evening took the form of an American soul singer at the Beach Hotel pub. The show was pretty fun for a while, but after about a half an hour the place was so full that it was impossible to move, and impossible to enjoy the performance. Eventually I abandoned the heat and crowds for the pleasant streets of Byron Bay. I walked around town for hours watching Friday night mayhem, then packed it in.
Saturday February 26, 2000
Unfortunately Frangipani was booked up for tonight so I had my final breakfast, packed up, and moved up the coast to The Belongil Beachhouse (Childe Street, telephone 02-6685-7868). Belongil has two sections; a backpackers resort and a set of private bungalos. The backpackers was booked up, but the bungalo area had room. Belongil's full service bungalows look like they were recently slapped together as cheaply as possible. In spite of the low-budget construction the cabins was quite serviceable, and substantially less expensive than Frangipani B&B.
A few doors down Childe Street from the Belongil Beachhouse, Café Swish (02- 6685-7144) [since renamed Belongil Beachhouse Cafe] provided an excellent lunch. Thus fueled up, I went for a drive through the mountains behind Byron Bay on the Coolamon Scenic Drive. I made a brief stop at Crystal Castle; a peaceful, beautiful place where you can have your aura read with crystals.
Next stop was Minyon Falls. It was an awful hike to the bottom. The sign says "2 kilometers". It should say "2 hours". The trees were full of cicadas that were so loud it actually hurt. If I hadn't known what the sound was, I would probably have been scared. As it was, it was simply unnerving and unpleasant. It made me want to just get the hell out of there. The trail was insanely muddy and treacherous. When I finally got through 3/4 of the trail, I suddenly found that the trail was just gone. Now I was scampering over huge boulders; wet, slippery, and covered with algae. The last 1/4 of the hike took forever, but each step I imagined that I must be just about there. It seems like the trail builders got only so far and gave up. If the start of the trail had been like this, I never would have started it. Finally I got to the waterfall to find that it was only modestly interesting. Not recommended.
My main goal for this drive was to finally see the town of Nimbin, a wild sounding hippy commune town way off in the hills. I had heard about Nimbin from several people and wanted to see it for myself. Some people spoke of it as a place where hippies enjoyed peace, happiness, drugs and community; others had described it as a disheartening home for strung out drug addicts. My lengthy hike at Minyon Falls had set me far behind schedule, so I proceeded directly to Nimbin via the towns of Dorroughby, Dunoon, and The Channon. It would have been nice to stop in some of these spots, but time was fleeing away.
What can I say about Nimbin? Frankly, I think it was everything that each person said it was, but less. It is a place that promotes alternative lifestyles, energy, art, and medicine, vegetarian and vegan eating, and tolerance for drugs. It is attempting many positive things. There are some fascinating buildings with beautiful facades and murals, and interesting people. The Nimbin museum is quite an adventure! On the other hand, some very down-and-out looking people offered to sell me drugs (which I declined.) One of them was so out of it that she re-offered each time I walked by. There were a handful of very unhappy looking vagrants in the park. In general, what was visible of the local drug culture looked pretty dismal.
By now it was getting quite late, so I had a quick snack, jumped back in the Ford and headed back to Byron via Coffee Camp, Goolmangar, Lismore and Bangalow.
Lunch at Café Swish had been so good, that I decided to have dinner there too. I ordered loin of lamb, one of their signature dishes. It was absolutely stunning. Sautéed eggplant with a layer of spinach, then baba gannouj, topped with lamb, served in a sea of reduced gravy. The flavors were excellent, with subtle interplays of cumin and fennel. One warning, the lamb is served very rare, which I like but may not appeal to everyone. It is so strange eating this world-class meal seated on plastic chairs at a plastic table at a restaurant that is associated with a backpacker's hostel. But it was great eating this wonderful meal, under the stars and palm trees with a sea breeze and the sounds of the surf just beyond the dunes. For desert I had a chocolate mousse cake, which was good, but not up to the standard of the other things I have enjoyed at Swish.
After dinner I walked around town on a crazy Saturday night, the air was wonderful, the sky full of amazing stars, I sat on the beach and took it all in.
Sunday February 27, 2000
Two great meals at Café Swish made breakfast there a no-brainer. Sadly, it was just OK, which was a bit disappointing after last night's stellar meal.
Sunday in Byron Bay means a drive to the Bangalow Sunday market. Bangalow is another funky coastal New South Wales town about 20 minutes from Byron. The Sunday market is a fun, eclectic affair with tons of booths set up to sell fresh produce, arts, crafts, clothes, and food. It was busy, but not unmanageably so. I had a great time poking around at all the terrific stuff - buying a wacky hat for myself (the sun was brutal), and a beautiful dress to give to my sister for her birthday.
From Bangalow I took another long drive in the mountains to visit the town of Mullumbimby ("Mullum" to the locals.) Mullumbimby was one of these little New South Wales towns that I had heard about but never seen. It looked pleasant, and worth a brief viewing, but didn't offer much that I hadn't already seen and enjoyed in Byron.
Back in Byron Bay I realized that this was my last day, but I still hadn't had the full isolation tank float and massage treatment that had been so memorable on my last visit. Someone had told me that Osho's House (1/30 Carlyle St., 02-6685-6792) was even better than Relax Haven, so I decided to try them out. The price was AU$45 for 1 hour of floating and a 1 hour massage. This was only the second isolation tank float I have ever done, and while I enjoyed the first, this time I found myself feeling uncomfortably claustrophobic. I actually didn't make it through the full 1 hour. The massage which followed was terrific. Next time I think I will skip the float.
In the evening I made a return trip to Fresh where I dined on incredible fish cakes with wonderful marinated cucumber slices and an odd squash and pumpkin " gnocchi" (which was not gnocchi, but rather a ravioli.)
Sigh, my last night in beautiful Byron. Tomorrow I am off to Townsville so I can go on a 3 day dive trip to the famous Yongala Wreck with Mike Ball Diving.
Monday February 28, 2000
I woke up this morning to rain, rain, rain. The rain continued for the full three-hour drive to the Brisbane airport where I caught my Ansett flight to Townsville with plenty of time to spare. Sitting on the runway in seat 5A in an Airbus 320, I looked up from my copy of Bill Bryson's, A walk in the Woods and thought to myself, "where the hell am I?" Then, dejectedly answered my own question, "oh. Brisbane." Being a world traveler is a wonderful fantasy... everyone should have it. But actually doing it is far more taxing than I had ever imagined. I wonder how much longer I will enjoy this.
After landing in Townsville I spent a while at the airport trying to figure out where to stay. There was a big kiosk in the center of the arrivals area advertising all the major local facilities, but I didn't know which one to choose. I made a call to Mike Ball Diving to see if they had a recommendation. Their recommendations were fairly different from the impressions I had from Fodor's and the advertising kiosk. Finally I chose the Centra Townsville hotel, 334 Flinders Mall (07-4772-2477), Townsville's best known and most recognizable hotel. Things in Townsville were surprisingly booked up. My choices at the Centra were pretty limited, so I chose a top floor executive suite. It was OK, but everything was damp; after two weeks of straight rain in a place that is normally 80% humidity anyway, I can understand why. The bathroom was practically dripping. Even the TV guide was moist. Annoyingly, the phone had so much static on it that I couldn't dial out.
Reading Bill Bryson always inspires me to walking, so I took a long walk around town. It is really dead here. I found it hard to imagine what this place might be like when it is sunny and clear. On a rainy Monday it is just closed up and put away. Townsville is said to be the capitol of North Queensland, which says a lot about North Queensland.
I had dinner at Dynasty Chinese Seafood Restaurant, 228 Flinders St. The hot and sour soup was good but really strange. As a main, the Moreton Bay Bugs with ginger and scallion was OK, but uninteresting. Throughout my meal the restaurant's wooden floors bounced up and down, while the overweight waitress/ manager, wearing heavy soled shoes, stomped around like she was trying to get the most pop from each step. This place gets the big "avoid". It's not that the food is bad, it's just that it is so unpleasant to be there. Close, damp, underlit, and with bouncing floors, I couldn't wait to get out. The staff was singularly unapologetic.
Tuesday February 29, 2000
Morning broke miraculously clear and calm. There didn't seem to be much wind left, and there were many breaks in the clouds. Work began at the building site next door at 7:30am, ugh. Another strike against the Cetra, which is supposed to be one of the best hotels in Townsville. The shower at the Centra has the most erratic water temperature of any shower I have ever been in, scalding me frequently during my 10-minute foray. I think the answer is, when in Townsville, stay at the Sheraton!
I walked up and down the pedestrian mall, then went to the Mike Ball dive shop to get set up for the trip and decide if I really wanted to go. The weather report was calling for two-meter seas with 20+ knot winds. Ugh. The folks at the shop pretty much talked me into going. After all, the only reason I was here in Townville was to go diving. I got my rental equipment lined up and was signed up to go.
Across the street from the hotel on Stokes St. at the corner of Ogden I noticed a Thai place called Wilai Thai Restaurant (07-4771-3227). I walked in, forgetting I was wearing my Thai "Coca-Cola" shirt, said "sawasde krap" to the woman behind the counter, and asked if she could make me "khao thom", a traditional Thai rice-soup breakfast which was not on the menu. She looked thrilled and said, "I can make for you." It was great. We spent a while talking about Thailand and her former shop on the southern Thai island of Koh Pi Pi.
Afterwards, I went back to the hotel, packed up and checked out. The phone was still bad, so I went down to the front desk with my computer, where they let me dial out on their fax line, though they did charge me 75 cents for the privilege.
The Townsville aquarium, "Reef HQ", is said to be great, so with 8 hours to kill, off I went. It is pretty cool, though it is much more impressive for its educational interactive displays than for its fish. Many other aquariums have more impressive collections of fish and sea animals. I spent a couple of hours and then went to McDonalds for a late lunch. At 4pm I headed back to Reef HQ to the IMAX theatre to watch the Everest IMAX movie. I walked over to the Sheraton hotel and casino, which was very unimpressive. The casino is no larger than most of the Indian gambling places in Washington State. Later I went across the street to the Quarterdeck Restaurant, where the Mike Ball guests were recommended to meet. Had a flavorless dinner, and talked with a bunch of people who were signed for the two Mike Ball ships heading out that night.
At a little past 8:00 pm we boarded the WaterSport, and at 9:30 we were under way. Reports are still for 20-knot winds and 2 meter swells. Ugh.
Wednesday March 1, 2000
God, what a night. The boat steamed out all night, pushing against currents and a headwind. The WaterSport is a catamaran, so it is basically very stable, but in high seas it moves in all directions; I'm finding it really hard to get used to the motion. Also, water crashes up under the main platform of the boat, between the two pontoons, making a huge and unnerving noise and vibration. Even though I was only mildly nauseous, I got very little sleep. I had to move out of my cabin and into the back of the boat to be able to sleep. Somehow I've ended up with the very front cabin again, and, of course, it moves more than any other part of the ship.
We got going on our first dive really late. So many people were green that the dive master decided to go slow and let people get a bit comfortable before we went in. Also, for some reason they like to do breakfast here before the first dive. There was no way I was gonna eat anything after a night like that and before the first dive.
The visibility was pretty poor, but the marine life was incredible. I saw an enormous eagle ray, and more napoleon wrasses than I have ever seen before. All the fish here are huge, amazing, and very unafraid. Unfortunately, one of the two guys I was diving with ran out of air in no time flat. He was at half a tank after 8 minutes! At 18 minutes we were still looking for the mooring line to go up and he was out of air! We were diving in a three-man team, and the other fellow who had air shared his first. We began an open-water ascent instead of going up the line. When we got to our safety stop, the second fellow was low on air. I still had 120 bar left, so I shared my air for the remaining safety stop at 5 meters. Total dive time, with stops, a scant 23 minutes. My shortest dive ever.
For the second dive we ditched the deep-breather. My buddy Simon and I headed out on our own. There was a huge sea turtle that was totally unafraid of us, and was perfectly happy to sit there grazing on the bottom as we floated just 2 feet away. This turned out to be a really hard dive though, because there was a strong current. We went with the current down the length of the boat, then had to struggle our way back in an exhausting kick. The giant sea-life here is great, but so far the overall experience is not being fun.
As the afternoon wore on, conditions were getting worse, and the divemaster announced that the 4th dive would be cancelled. I was just about to skip the last dive of the day when the skipper came along and cajoled me into going. It was a good thing too, because this was the best dive of the day. A group of 6 of us went down with Rob the skipper. Right off the bat we ran into a really big Bull Shark, then another sea turtle. After a short while people were running out of air (as usual), and Rob sent them back up the line. Finally it was just the two of us; I still had 120 bar of air. We swam around and saw an amazing creature called a cow-tail ray. It was a huge round ray, probably 5 feet in diameter, that swam around us a couple of times. Then I saw a shovel-nose (or Banjo) ray - a creature that looks like a shark with a pointed spade for a head. It ended up being a great dive, and was the first dive of this whole trip that was a reasonable length at 44 minutes.
In the evening it started to rain and the wind and waves picked up. The swells got huge. It was a good thing the night dive was cancelled. Fortunately we were staying moored for the night and didn't have to move through these waves. By nightfall the clouds had cleared and the stars were out in profusion, with a clear view of the Milky Way. I was so tired I collapsed into a deep sleep at 8:30pm.
Thursday March 2, 2000
The first dive this morning is at dawn, 6:30am. I've never done a dawn dive before; this should be cool since fish hunt at dawn. Unfortunately the visibility was really poor. We saw one more bull shark, and tons of big fish at wrasse cleaner stations, but otherwise this was a pretty uneventful dive.
The last dive for the trip was at 9:30am. This one was a bit better than the first. I saw my first ever sea snake; it was tan in color and at least 5 feet long. We also saw another shovel head ray.
Heading home the water was much more calm and the sky was clear with nice warm air and sun. I finally felt really good. After not eating much for the last two days, both Simon, my dive buddy, and I were eating everything in sight.
The Mike Ball people here on the boat are very impressive. They're really professional and provide good food and surroundings. The equipment and safety precautions are excellent. I have to grouse a bit about the people at the sales office though. Keep in mind that this is Mike Ball, the world renowned Cadillac of dive operations. When I went in on Tuesday, I expressed concern about the weather conditions. They basically talked me into going: "Oh the WaterSport is soooo stable. The weather will get better. We often go out in this kind of swell, etc." Also, the policy is that if I cancelled due to weather, there would be a 40% penalty. But come on, two meter waves with a 20+ knot wind is a big deal. I am a landlubber, not a serious seaman, and two- meter swells mean I am not going to have a good time. While waiting to load the boat I met Mike Ball himself. When asked about the conditions he said that visibility at the wreck was going to be poor because of all the rain over the last 2 weeks. Personally, I think that the Cadillac of dive operations should have just cancelled the trip outright; bad weather and poor visibility were expected, and delivered. They should have just saved us the pain and said "Look, we'll take the hit, don't go." At the very least they should have offered me the option of canceling for a full refund.
Worse still, there were two people who had just finished their dive certifications and had only had 4 dives in their lives. The Yongala is a hard dive; I was required to fill out a form swearing that I had had more than 15 dives do be allowed to do the trip. When I had been in Australia 2 years earlier, I was not allowed to dive the Yongala due to lack of experience. But this boat was half empty. These two beginners came into the shop the day of the trip, explained that they were both beginners and both prone to seasickness and asked what trip they should go on. The office staff convinced them to go on this Yongala trip! Presumably because the boat was half empty, not because it was an appropriate trip for them. The one spent all three days locked in her cabin puking, her husband dived each day but said that it was way over his head and he really didn't feel comfortable. This is not the way to maintain your reputation as a world-class operation. If you are going to be the Cadillac of dive operators, you can't have Buick salesmen working in the shop. Would I recommend this trip? Would I recommend Mike Ball Dive Expeditions? Yes. But, pick your day, pick your weather, and know your own skills. The people on the boats are very professional, but those in the shop are evidently unscrupulous. If there are 2-meter swells, cancel the trip unless you know you are comfortable in those conditions.
The weather back to Townsville was very nice; clear, sunny and calm. I even managed to get a mild sun-burn out on the deck. If these had been the conditions during the trip, I'm sure everyone on board would have had a great time. Oh well. Right across the parking lot from the docks is the Sheraton Townsville. I got my bags off the boat, walked across the lot and checked in. But get this; the Sheraton Townsville is no longer a Sheraton! It was bought by Jupiter, a large Australian casino operator. It is now the Jupiter Townsville and not a Starwood property, so I don't get points for my stay, nor a room upgrade. The building has a huge Sheraton "S" on the top. The bedside telephone has the Sheraton "S" and wreath, next to that is the Sheraton "S" pad of paper, and a Sheraton pen. The notice in the bathroom suggests that I help Sheraton in its efforts to save water by re-using my towels. As I sit here writing, I am wearing a bathrobe with the "S" and wreath emblazoned on the breast. On my pillow lies a packet of "Starwood Preferred Guest" chocolates, and in the desk drawer there is the Sheraton Worldwide Directory. I think I'll have to write to Starwood about this one! [ Postscript: When I got back to the US, I called Starwood to complain. They told me that the "Jupiter Townsville" is still a Sheraton and gave me credit for my stay.]
Nonetheless, the Jupiter Townsville is so superior to the Centra that it is not even funny. I had paid AU$190 for an executive suite at the Centra, and it was OK. But compared to this AU$125 room on the 18th floor of the Jupiter, the Centra is a pit. Granted my suite at the Centra was bigger, but it really wasn't a very good hotel. Here the bed is big and comfy, the shower doesn't scald me, the telephone works, and the room isn't damp. So, when in Townsville... well, try not to come to Townsville at all. But, if you have to go to Townsville, the Sheraton... er, Jupiter... is the place to stay.
After I got checked in and cleaned up I headed back to the neighborhood of the Centra to get some dinner and collect up the bag I had left there before the trip. I went to the Wilai Thai Restaurant where I had had the excellent khao thom the other morning. The same smiling Thai woman was there to greet me. I sat down and ordered an appetizer of fried dried beef (a northern Thai dish), and chicken red curry (Gang Dang Gai) as a main. The proprietress said to me, "Oh, do you like green curry? I cannot get the good red curry here, not same as Thailand. Green curry is better, I bring you that." Cool. And I gotta say, this was absolutely the best Thai food I have had outside of Thailand (and better than a lot of the food I've had inside Thailand). If you like authentic Thai food, this is the place. Arroy mak!
Friday March 3, 2000
I woke up really early this morning; probably because I had gotten used to early mornings on the boat and crashed out so early last night. I called up Ansett and booked myself onto the 10:55am flight to Melbourne via Brisbane. Airline tickets for travel within Australia are really expensive, but they become downright reasonable if you are a foreign traveler with a foreign passport and an international ticket. I also got online and booked myself a car for Melbourne.
When I got to the airport I was stunned to see immense lines at checkin. Every line was huge, and none of them were moving. It turned out that the reason was that my flight was cancelled, and everyone was being rebooked onto other flights. Thus, each person checking in was taking a great amount of time. However, as I stood in line I didn't know this, and started to worry that I might actually miss my flight while standing in line. Eventually I made it to the front, found out what the deal was, and had no problem switching to the next flight. As it happens it didn't really effect me at all, because I had a long connection in Brisbane. The change just meant I would spend longer in Townsville's airport, and less time waiting in Brisbane's airport.
The later flight got off without a hitch, though the plane was 100% full, which made it a bit cramped. The meal on the flight was acceptable, and I had an amusing time talking to a Queenslander bloke who owned a trucking company. I swear I only understood about 60% of what he said, but we had fun chatting anyway. I nodded my head a lot. We talked a bit about America and I mentioned how good the highway system is. Boy did he ever agree. He said he used to meet truckers from America who would talk about the great American roads and he always thought they were "bragging a bunch of bull", but then he got to see the roads for himself. Now he knows that "you American blokes really have something to brag about there!"
My plan for this return trip to Melbourne was to do some sightseeing outside the city, so this time I rented a car and drove myself in from the airport. As usual, Hertz offered to upgrade me from a Toyota Camry to a huge Ford Falcon, but this time I declined, preferring the more manageable and better handling smaller car. The efficient route from the airport to the city involves driving along a fancy new "CityLink" toll road that has technology to automatically bill you for driving on the road. If your car isn't registered you get a huge fine. Hertz will register you to use the toll road for a ridiculous fee, or you can call up on the conveniently located white CityLink telephone in the car rental area and get a one-day registration for AU$3.50, which is what I did.
The drive in to the city was uneventful, though it was difficult weaving my way through one-way streets from the highway to the Sheraton. I had been apprehensive about driving in the city because Melbourne has some very odd laws. In particular, if you want to make a left turn at a traffic light, you must drive into the intersection all the way to the right. You then wait on the right side of the intersection until all traffic has gone and the light has changed against you, then you make your left turn across all the lanes. Apparently this approach is supposed to decrease the number of car-trolley accidents that occur. Melbournites seem to have no problem with this. I just avoided making left turns.
The Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program had recently been running a promotion in which 5 hotel stays got you 2 free Friday nights at any Starwood property. My prior stay here in Melbourne had put me over the top, so I now had 2 "Free Fridays" to use up. Conveniently this was Friday, so I got to stay again at this excellent hotel for free. Can't beat that!
After checking in I went back for another excellent dinner at Blue Train. I had originally been thinking of trying another place, but was tired out from the day's travels. Blue Train was even more crowded than the last time I was here. Eventually I managed to find a seat at the bar where I ate another fine meal while being jostled by Friday night partiers.
Saturday March 4, 2000
This morning I was up and out bright and early. First off I had to get plane tickets to get me back to Sydney on Monday so I could make my continuing flight to Bangkok. That completed I proceeded to get a ton of useful information about the Great Ocean Road from Steve the concierge. Thus armed, I walked over to the Hopetoun Tea Room in the Block Arcade for a light breakfast of tea and scones with strawberry jam and crème fraiche. Refreshed, I headed out into the streets of Melbourne to find the Victoria tourist offices where I hoped to pick up a copy of the Great Ocean Road B&B guide and tourist guides that Steve had recommended. I found the tourist office, but they were out of all the guides I wanted and were only able to provide me with a map.
Hopping back into my nice little Camry, I managed to make my way through the wacky one way streets of Melbourne, into the highway system, and onto the Princess Highway heading West. Shortly I found myself in Geelong where another Victoria Information Center is located right off the highway. Geelong is the gateway to the Great Ocean Road, so you'd figure this would be "ground zero" for Great Ocean Road information. Sadly, someone in the Victoria Information bureaucracy seems to have let their end down, as this information center was fresh out of booklets too. As I was walking back down their front stairs a nice old woman who worked there came running out after me - she had managed to find one last copy of the mythic B&B guide for me.
Conveniently there was a McDonalds right next to the information center, so I stopped in for a quick bite, then got right onto the famous Great Ocean Road, Victoria's most famous attraction after Melbourne itself.
The day was sunny, cool and breezy. There were other cars on the road, but it was not crowded. I was always able to do the speed limit, or higher. If you tried to do a drive like this in America on a sunny Saturday in summer down one of the most famous scenic drives in the country, you would do the whole thing at 2 miles per hour bumper to bumper with 100,000 other drivers. Here you can pull into a parking lot by a little beach and find it absolutely empty.
So I did pull into a parking lot at a little deserted beach, just before the town of Lorne, and walked around a bit. The surf was high and the winds were strong, but it was a pleasant stop nonetheless. For some reason the beach was covered with cuttlefish bones. Go figure. It was also interesting to note that the rock formations, seaweeds, and snails appeared to be identical to those I had seen last year on the beaches of Kiakoura on the south island of New Zealand.
The road is very much like California's Pacific Coast Highway (highway 1) between, say, Big Sur and Mendocino. In fact, it is so much like the PCH that I had a moment of panic that I was on the wrong side of the road. The cliffs, sea, eucalyptus and cypress trees are identical to those of California. At one point there was an "S" turn that looked exactly like a stretch of road just beyond Santa Cruz, near where I had lived as a student. But here I was on the left hand side of the road instead of the right, resulting in a panicky feeling of déjà vu.
A bit further on I had a snack at the Sea-Grape Wine Bar and Grill (141 Great Ocean Road (03) 5237-6610) in the lovely little coastal town of Apollo Bay. It was very pleasant. Continuing on I eventually reached Otway National Park and the Maits Rest trail. The sign at the trailhead said that it would be a 45 minute round trip, which was fine with me. Presumably the person that timed the walk did it with a 100-kilo pack on his back, because at a slow amble the trail took me 25 minutes round trip. That included doubling back to my car to get a jacket (it was really, really cold in the woods.) Anyway, though short, the trail is beautiful, well done, and well maintained - full of huge tree ferns, birds, and little streams. Unfortunately it is also full of noisy people who weren't even able to shut up in front of the information sign that described the many things you can hear if you are quiet in the woods!
By evening I arrived at Loch Ard Gorge, an area of stunning brown and cream colored cliffs cut and eroded by the sea. I spent about 20 minutes at Loch Ard before rushing off to get to the 12 Apostles before sunset. After Ayers Rock, the 12 Apostles is probably the most famous geological formation in Australia. Though there are now only 8 "Apostles" left (the other 4 having collapsed into the sea), the 12 Apostles definitely rates an "S" for " Spectacular." Consisting of eight towers of limestone, they stand guard in the waves like majestic pillars. The waves crash mightily against them as they wash towards shore, yet still these limestone columns stand, for the time being. Sunset at the 12 apostles cast a glorious red hue on the rocks, drawing crowds of photographers hoping to perfectly capture this moment.
When the sun was finally gone I continued on into the town of Port Campbell. I was nervous about being able to find a place to stay late on a Saturday evening in summer with no reservation. Sure enough, all the hotels located on the main drag sported "no vacancy" signs. I found a payphone and started to call B&B's listed in my Victoria Information guide. The first I called was full, so I was quite relieved when my second call yielded an available room at a B&B called Shearwater Haven (12 Pleasant Drive, Port Campbell, 03- 5598-6532.) I zipped on over to secure my spot and was surprised to find that I needn't have worried; both the B&B's rooms were vacant.
Shearwater Haven is one of those B&B's that is basically just someone's house with a few guest rooms set up on the side. It was a perfectly pleasant house with a nicely decorated bedroom and a large sitting area reserved for the guests. When I was all checked in and settled, I headed back into the town to find some dinner. There were a number of options, but none of them really appealed to me. After weeks of eating out three meals a day, all restaurants loose their allure. Finally I chose The Koo-Aah Port Campbell Restaurant. The restaurant was a small upstairs room above a take-away place. All the tables were full and were being served by just one waitress who also served as cashier, matre d' and god knows what else. The food was good but the service was seriously slow. By the time I got out of there it was very, very late. I went back to the B&B and crashed.
Sunday March 5, 2000
Got up, had a pleasant breakfast at Shearwater Haven, packed up, and headed out. Unfortunately the weather had become quite overcast and was threatening to rain. The whole region was bordering on drought, so everyone there wanted a downpour, but I was still wishing for sunshine. Before continuing my westward journey, I decided to double back and have another look at the 12 Apostles. Along the way I spotted a swamp wallaby at the side of the road. Wallabies are such surprising creatures; I just don't expect to see them. Perhaps the most arresting thing about them is that they too look so surprised, perhaps wondering what they themselves are doing there.
So I had another good long look at the remarkable 12 Apostles, and then the Loch Ard Gorge, now taking the time to walk around on many of the trails. Though the views were amazing, my heart wasn't really in it. For some reason, by the time my last day in a country rolls around, I'm thinking, "I want to get the hell outta here." Kinda puts a damper on my enjoyment. Proceeding back west again, I passed back through Port Campbell, then stopped for a while at the Bay of Martyrs, overlooking the amazing Bay of Islands.
The road continued on and on. I stopped for a bite of cheese at the gloriously named "CheeseWorld", then quickly proceeded on to Warrnambool. Warrnambool is a pleasant looking town, evidently with a well signed bike path. However, I did not stop, instead carrying on another couple dozen kilometers to Port Fairy, through various mixtures of sun and rain.
Port Fairy is very cute. It is full of very nice old buildings most of which appear to either be eateries or B&Bs. It is a quiet old seaside town, the kind of place to spend a week reading the Sunday paper and doing a little fishing. I stopped in for lunch at a restaurant conveniently named "Lunch Caf é", where I had a leg of duck. The presentation was beautiful, but the taste was OK at best. Looking around at other tables, everything that was served looked absolutely beautiful. I wondered if the other diner's meals were as disappointing in flavor as mine. I decided to forego the beautiful looking deserts, not wanting to discover them to be mediocre tasting; instead I went down the block to an ice cream parlor and had a nice cup of homemade sorbet.
Driving back from Port Fairy I returned to Warrnambool, then headed up the " Princes Highway" towards Melbourne, rather than re-tracing the slow Great Ocean Road. It was a long but pleasant drive through farmland with little farming towns, occasional farmhouses, lots of cows, and kilometer after kilometer of handmade stone walls. This is said to be the lushest dairy land in Australia. However, now it is all the golden brown of dried grass due to the unusual lack of rain this year.
When I finally made it back to Geelong I had a decision to make. It was 6pm. I could stop here and then continue on to the airport tomorrow, or I could return to Melbourne and stay in town, or in one of the suburbs, or at the Airport. Looking through my guidebooks I realized that I was just 35 kilometers from Queenscliff, an old Victorian town that was once the favored weekend getaway of well-to-do Melbournites. Off I went down the B110 to this beautiful little sleepy resort town full of restored turn-of-the-century grand hotels. The Queenscliff hotel was recommended by Fodor's, but the two rooms they had available were both tiny, so I pressed on. Just down the road I popped into the Ozone Hotel (42 Gellibrand St, (03) 5258 1011, http://www.ozonehotel.com.au/), where I was shown a spacious room with 1/2 of a view of the sea. It was very nice for the discounted rate of AU$110.
For dinner I walked back a block to the Vue Grande hotel, whose restaurant has won countless awards. The menu included a sampler of each of their 6 appetizers, so I got that as my main. The French chef had prepared quite a collection of fascinating little plates; things like mussels with an abalone sauce, pâté baked in puff pastry, curried shrimp, a complex gnocci preparation, and salmon wrapped around blue eye trevally. Somehow each of the different appetizers managed to be really disappointing. Nothing was out-and-out bad, but none of it was good. Each preparation fell on its face in its own unique way. Hi ho. Maybe the French chef has Sunday's off.
Monday March 6, 2000
The Ozone hotel served really great eggs benedict for breakfast (included). I checked out and discovered that I hadn't actually been checked in! I could have just snuck out and no one would have known the difference. Anyway, the woman at reception accepted my assurance that I had been offered a rate of AU$110 the night before, and checked me both in and out. Then it was off to Melbourne. All the people at the hotel assured me that it would be over 2 hours to drive to the Melbourne Airport, one even suggested I'd better leave two and a half hours to be safe. That seemed odd to me given my reading of the map, and sure enough I did it in an hour and a quarter. I wonder what they were thinking.
Flying from Melbourne to Sydney on a Boeing 767-200. It's nice to be in a real airplane again!
I arrived in Sydney without incident and got my baggage, then faced getting to the International airport. I hate cities that have separate airports for domestic and international. For crying out loud, did the designers think that people would never want to connect between domestic and international flights? I was doubly peeved when I learned that the shuttle bus between the two terminals costs AU$2.50. Come on, you have separate terminals, the least you can do is have a free shuttle. Give me a break!
At the international terminal I picked up a bag that I had left in a locker a month ago. For some reason the charge was only AU$100, when it should have been AU$120. I suspect the machine can't count higher than 100. When I had checked-in in Melbourne, they warned me that my two pieces of luggage were way over the weight limit and I would be facing baggage fines of AU$15 per kilo over the limit. So it was with some trepidation that I checked-in in Sydney with the added weight of the third bag. Of course, the agent at check- in for business class at Thai in Sydney didn't even bat an eye. I don't know if it was because I was business class, or Star Alliance Gold, or the people in Melbourne didn't know what they were talking about, or the agent in Sydney just didn't care. In any case, I was happy not to have to shell out big bucks for an extra baggage allowance.
With a couple of hours to kill I did a brief survey of the different Star Alliance members executive lounges. Thai's Royal Orchid lounge was laughably small, with capacity for maybe 20 people at the most. The food was OK. Air New Zealand's lounge was quite large, with better food, but less of it, though better beer. The United Red Carpet club was much larger still, attractively and lavishly decorated, spacious, airy, and closed. Yup, closed. Their last flight for the day had gone out, so they were closed, thought they did allow me to look around. I don't know what the food would have been like. I ended my journey at the Ansett Gold Wings club, which wasn't quite as nice as Air New Zealand, but was closer to my departure gate.
My flight to Bangkok was on a Thai Airways 747 300/400. I was in the upstairs business class section, which was pleasant though the seats have not yet been upgraded so I couldn't plug in my computer. Also, the seats were not nearly as comfortable as the wonderful new 747/400 seats. The food also did not compare to United, but was pretty good. The flight was smooth, though for 10 seconds we hit the strongest turbulence I can remember. It came on without warning, lasted about 10 seconds, then stopped as suddenly as it started. There were audible gasps throughout the cabin as it felt like we had accidentally landed on another plane. Other than that, it was on to the next stop around the world.
During this visit to Australia I didn't go to Sydney at all. I had spent 6 days there on my prior trip to Australia from November 29 to December 4, 1999. Since I had already seen much of Sydney, I didn't want to take time from this trip to go back. When I was there in late 1999 I kept a journal, which I have never before published. For those who are considering a trip to Australia and are interested in my perceptions from that time, here is that journal.
Sydney is a big, bustling, modern city. I'm afraid I can't say I'm a big fan. In short Sydney is an unexceptional large city with great beaches. Not that a big city with great beaches is a bad thing - I'm just not sure I'd travel half way around the world to visit one. I have a hard time considering Sydney to be a "world class" city. I'm sure I will get a lot of flack for that opinion, but I call 'em like I see 'em. To me Sydney is a New York wanna-be without the history, culture, or flair. One extra strike that Sydney has against it right now is that it is "under construction". In preparation for the 2000 Olympics, large construction projects are underway everywhere. This, no doubt, contributes to the hectic, unfinished feeling of the city.
My favorite part of Sydney proper was The Rocks. The Rocks is the oldest part of Sydney and has a fair bit of charm. It can be thought of in the same context as Boston's Faneuil Hall market place area, Portland's marketplace, Vancouver's Gastown, or the restored waterfronts of many U.S cities. The buildings are mostly all built from rock excavated directly from the surrounding hillside. This gives the area a pleasantly unified feel that the rest of the city lacks. The old buildings now house café's, pubs, upscale and gifty shopping and hotels. I spent a bit of time in one French bakery-café reading and people watching.
The Royal Botanic Gardens are very nice and worth a visit, but again they don't really rank up against other botanic gardens I have visited. One notable exception is the greenhouses in the center of the Botanic Gardens. The plantings and layout of the greenhouses are really exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the northern tropical rainforest exhibit. Most of the other attractions of the "Domain" area are ignorable, particularly the famous Mrs. Maquarie's chair. If you happen to walk by it, fine, but don't go out of your way! One thing that is really cool about the Botanic Gardens (and the whole Domain area) is the flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets and Golden Crested Cockatoos that live there. As a northern city-dweller it is really exciting to see big colorful tropical birds living in a city environment.
Sydney tower is a major letdown for tower-lovers. There are no displays indicating what you are seeing from the tower, there is no informative discussion about how or why the tower was built, and the view just isn't that interesting. So for the tower fans everywhere, go forth and ascend Seattle's Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower, the Duomo in Florence, and the Washington Monument and rejoice. If you go to Sydney tower, be prepared for second rate.
Being a fan of Victorian homes, Sydney left a lot to be desired. Much of Sydney's original architecture has bowed to the incessant march of progress. I did get a chance to see one of the few remaining important Victorian homes which is open to the public. The Elizabeth Bay House was built in the 1830's for Alexander Macleay, a Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. The history of the house, its construction, and the family intrigues is interesting. The house itself has only one compelling architectural feature: the grand central atrium, which is an oval and is circumambulated by a flying staircase. Unfortunately, few of the furnishings are original (though they are all correct period pieces). Also, one of the main original features of the house was the gardens, and the placement of the house among the gardens. Today the gardens are all gone and the house sits on a very small piece of land.
I spent Sunday hanging out with my friends Matt and Christine, who are living temporarily in Manly, a northern borough of Sydney. We started out the day walking around Darling harbor. This is a very well executed waterfront area with exciting water features, statuary and broad areas for people to congregate. Well worth a look. This is also where the aquarium is located, and though I am a huge fan of aquaria, I didn't make it in to this one. We then met up with a set of Matt and Christine's very cool friends for a brunch of "Yum Cha". "Yum Cha" is basically identical to Dim Sum, and I'm really not sure why they use a different word for it. Regardless of the name, it was an excellent meal and quite up to the Dim Sum standards of Boston, Vancouver and San Francisco. Post meal we proceeded to the Taronga Zoo, which was really very good. The displays are well done; it is interesting getting a chance to see the Australian wild-life up close. Many of Australia's animals are very shy in the wild, and many more are simply rare, so the zoo is really the best way to actually get a look at these critters.
About Dining in Australia: Australian cuisine seems to fall into a few rough categories; nouvelle, common, and foreign. The nouvelle cuisine can be quite good and is in many ways very exciting. There is a clear movement in the Australian haute cuisine to use fresh local produce, and incorporate features of all the different cultures that have occupied the continent. What I call " common" cuisine is the food that folks just eat to stay alive. It's not impressive. The predominant source of inspiration for Australian food is British cooking (which I will not dignify with the word "cuisine.") So, you can imagine how boring the basic Australian diet is. Australians seem to have a huge taste for deep fried foods. In fact, they'll deep fry just about anything, whether you ask them to or not. To their credit they've learned to deep fry very well, and I've had the best fish and chips in Australia that I' ve had anywhere. It is very interesting to walk into a greasy fish 'n chips place and be offered by choice of 7 or 8 different fish for deep frying. On the other hand a plate of sizzling deep fried fish and potatoes when it is 90° out with 95% humidity is a daunting sight. Another thing I found interesting about street food in Australia is the prevalence of KFC (aka Kentucky Fried Chicken) places. I imagine there are a lot of KFC's in the USA; in fact, there's probably at least one in just about any major city. But they don't really stand out as a feature of the landscape. In Australia huge billboards proclaim the omnipresence of KFC in every city, town and hamlet. If you have a hankering for the Colonel's secret blend of herbs and spices you will not go unfed in Australia! In addition to "houses of the glorious and resplendent Colonel" there are the usual McDonalds, Burger Kings, and so on. Finally, there are restaurants offering the cuisines of most of the world's nations. Thai, Indian, French, British, Italian, and Chinese are all well represented (in that order.)
One big problem with Australian restaurants in general is the lack of tipping. On the one hand it is really nice to not have to tip. On the other, it's really nice to have some kind of service when you are hungry. My vote is to institute tipping tout suite! Except in the most exceptional restaurants the service is basically terrible. There is no concept of one particular waiter serving one particular table. Whatever waitperson happens to notice you will help you (or not.) Which would be fine except that there is no incentive for any one waitperson to bother to notice you. In many cases I definitely felt like all the wait people were relying on each other to do the work, resulting in no one serving any one. Ah well.
I did have some great meals in Sydney. The first night I was in town I decided to stay in my hotel and eat at Kables. Kables is a highly touted fine restaurant and lived up to its billing. The service was very good and the food was fine. In many ways it was very much a "fine restaurant in a fine hotel." That is to say, the courses were well prepared and well presented but lacked a certain pizzazz that you might find at an independent restaurant. Matt and Christine joined me for this meal, helping me start my Sydney vacation on a high note. If memory serves we started with Grilled West Australian Marron with Red Shrimp Sauce, then I had the Pan Friend Queensland Barramundi. Another meal I had with Matt and Christine occurred a few days later in Manley at a place called Le Kiosk. Le Kiosk is a nouvelle cuisine café style restaurant right on the beach. The location was really pleasant and the food was both excellent and creative. I haven't found Le Kiosk in travel books, but I definitely recommend it. I recall starting with Gravlax of Salmon with smoked salmon fish cake and dill sauce, but for the life of me I can't remember what main course I had. Hmmmm.
Subsequently I ate at Rockpool, widely regarded as Sydney's finest restaurant. Rockpool is located in The Rocks area, not far from my hotel. The restaurant itself is stunning in a very, very modern way possessing exciting lighting, wall hangings, and use of space. The place is visually exhilarating and hangs together well. Rockpool also had the best service of any restaurant I patronized in Australia. Well worth the visit. Note however that reservations on weekends are hard to come by, so I ate there on a Tuesday night. The opening Fragrant Broth with King Prawn Dumplings was a stunning Thai inspired soup that was beautiful and filling, if a bit salty. For a main course I had a special fish (which isn't shown on the menu I'm looking at) and was excellent. I finished with a Passionfruit Soufflé, which reminded me that Passionfruit is an odd flavor and not suited to all dishes.
I didn't really do much of the nightlife in Sydney. Partly I was wigged out from the time zone thing, and in part I just wanted to have a great dinner and then go back to my hotel and read. Nothing like a chance to read after months and months of furious work! One night I did head out to the Kings Cross area to take in the (in)famous nightlife there. Visiting Kings Cross in Sydney is a lot like visiting Bourbon St. in New Orleans: you've got to do it, but you don't need to do it twice. Kings Cross has a bustling nightlife of bars, clubs, and seedy strip joints. There were a lot of people out and about, and it was great for people watching. The bars were OK.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal
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